"Such lavish reupholstering is what genius deserves": The beautifully presented Asylum Albums 1976-1980 finds Joni Mitchell inhabiting the art department

Joni loves jazz

Joni Mitchell The Asylum Albums (1976-1980) cover art
(Image: © Rhino)

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One could argue that Joni Mitchell’s Olympian period ends with the first disc in this box, as she, in her own words, moved from the hit department to the art department. Hejira (1976) is her last indisputable masterpiece, and a favourite of Mitchell herself, who felt it couldn’t have come from anyone else. 

It’s an exceptional album, unspoiled by anything close to ordinary, and Coyote, possibly about a one-night stand with playwright/actor Sam Shepard, Furry Sings The Blues with Neil Young on harmonica, and the gorgeous Amelia, an ode to aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, are particularly great. Master jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius is as much the lead instrumentalist as Mitchell, and his unique touch, across this box, is even more prominent on these remasters.

Joni Mitchell - The Asylum Albums (1976-1980) - YouTube Joni Mitchell - The Asylum Albums (1976-1980) - YouTube
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Mitchell dived gleefully into deep experimentation on 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. The near-seven-minute percussion excursion The Tenth World tests the patience, but Paprika Plains - all of side two, much of it improvised - is astounding. Talk To Me, Otis And Marlena and superb failed single Off Night Backstreet also boost this underrated record. Little wonder that Björk found it inspiring. (It’s also no surprise that the black-face cover art has been replaced. Even for the 70s it was an odd choice.) 

Mingus (1979), a collaboration of sorts with bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus, is, frankly, an acquired taste. Of the four Mitchell/Mingus co-writes, The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines is a bit too hip and cool for its own good, and A Chair In The Sky and Sweet Sucker Dance meander aimlessly. Her addition of lyrics to Goodbye Pork Pie Hat is far from unpleasant, but it’s not a patch on the original from his marvellous Mingus Ah Um album. Still, no Mitchell record is without redeeming features, and The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey stands out.

Joni Mitchell - Coyote (Official Audio) - YouTube Joni Mitchell - Coyote (Official Audio) - YouTube
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Shadows And Light (1980) is a strong live album on which a ridiculously great band featuring Pastorius, guitarist Pat Metheny and saxophonist Michael Brecker improve the Mingus material, and it’s worth having for Edith And The Kingpin and a sparkling In France They Kiss On Main Street on their own. 

Beautifully presented, including an essay from super-fan Meryl Streep, this box maintains the standard set by Mitchell’s exemplary archival series, but such lavish reupholstering is what genius deserves.

Pat Carty

Pat Carty is a writer for Irish monthly music and politics magazine Hot Press. You'll also find him at The Times, Irish Independent, Irish Times and Irish Examiner, and on radio wherever it's broadcast.