A box set like this is not intended for casual fans, nor for those for whom Joni Mitchell’s work starts and ends with an annual festive spin of River. Incredibly comprehensive, and including cuts that most have never heard before, this five-disc anthology covering Mitchell’s early years, way before the release of her 1968 debut album Song To A Seagull, is a gift for completists, music historians and obsessives.
Even for them, approaching it in one sitting is a challenge. Instead it’s better to savour it episodically, because each segment ends on something of a cliffhanger: you can hear her evolve from gamine coffee-shop folkie into a masterful, angel-voiced singer-songwriter as the collection develops.
The earliest years indeed find her in thrall to Celtic and American folk standards such as Molly Malone and John Hardy, both covered faithfully here, while her take on the traditional Nancy Whiskey picks up the age-old thread with good humour and delicate care.
But as she gains experience and confidence her unique style blooms. On disc three you can hear the moment the cocoon is shed, as she recognises her full creative potential with Both Sides Now, which became a classic.
As a document of the early 1960s music scene, this box set is also fascinating, thanks to the radio DJs introducing her sessions who consistently boggle over the then brand-new concept of the singer-songwriter. But mainly that unmistakable voice is the star, and it seems it was sheer perfection from day one.