“Let me speak,” sings Joni Mitchell on “The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song),” “let me spit out my bitterness.” Few songwriters could write, let alone convincingly convey, such blunt, honest language. Mitchell’s words are honed by a life dedicated to the notion that songs, like all great art, can illuminate deeper truths. Plenty has been written about the rockers of the ’60s hitting their 50s, but Mitchell is virtually the only female pop star to pass that mark with her artistry undiminished. Turbulent Indigo is Mitchell’s best album since the mid-’70s and a work that is highly musical, poetic and very, very sad.
The stark, precise language of Turbulent Indigo will draw comparisons to Blue (1971), but the songs and arrangements also recall the pop rock of Court and Spark (1974) and, to a lesser degree, the meditative jazzy style of Hejira (1976). The sound is spare, with songs anchored by the singer’s piano (“Not to Blame”) or guitar (“Borderline”). It’s on guitar, however, that Mitchell’s a true stylist, with a technique characterized by unorthodox tunings and a strum peppered with percussive fills.
The words make the poignant melody of “Not to Blame” sing — and sting. Consider the opening: “The story hit the news from coast to coast/They say you beat the girl you loved the most.” It’s chilling but ultimately irrelevant that Mitchell wrote this song of domestic violence before somebody slit the throat of Nicole Brown Simpson. “Six hundred thousand doctors are putting on rubber gloves,” sings Mitchell. “And they’re poking at the miseries made of love.”
The spine-tingling “Sex Kills” profits from Mitchell’s recent work with synthesized textures. The lyrics to Mitchell’s most famous songs evoke a confessional voice, but here she rips horror from the headlines, blending individual crimes (“All these jack-offs at the office, the rapist in the pool”) with more universal fears of AIDS and a deteriorating environment. “And the gas leaks, and the oil spills,” she concludes. “And sex sells everything, and sex kills.”
Turbulent Indigo was produced by Mitchell and Larry Klein, who also plays bass. The soprano sax of Wayne Shorter, a longtime collaborator, provides an emotional counterpoint to Mitchell’s voice on five tracks, including the beguiling “Yvette in English,” written with David Crosby. Seal sings with Mitchell on “How Do You Stop,” a surprisingly compatible cover of a song originally cut by James Brown.
The words are brutally confidential on the closing “The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song).” Mitchell’s background vocals underscore her lead voice — “Man is the sire of sorrow” — like a chorus recruited from “The Magdalene Laundries,” her song about an Irish work convent for fallen women. “The Sire of Sorrow” ends with Mitchell drawing blood with three repeats of a line that cuts to the emotional bone — “You make everything I dread and everything I fear come true.” Mitchell knows that love hurts — her own marriage to Klein fell apart around the time she was working on Turbulent Indigo — and is living proof that art endures.