Taming the Tiger

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October 05, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Taming the Tiger”is Joni Mitchell’s first release of new material since 1994’s ”Turbulent Indigo,” a Best Pop Album Grammy winner. This was a startlingly unexpected award for a record that had, like any number of Mitchell’s immediately previous albums, sold weakly and left nary a dent on the music scene. So I’d be surprised if the encouragement of the Grammy — combined with the widely reported 1997 reunion of Mitchell with the daughter she’d given up for adoption decades ago — didn’t court and spark what is most obvious on ”Tiger”: a renewed interest in openess, in reaching out to a wider audience after years of stubborn insularity.

Mitchell said in a recent interview that the tentatively tender ”Stay in Touch” is about getting to know her now grown daughter, Kilauren, and that ”Facelift” is an affectionately sardonic response to an argument Joni had with her 86-year-old mother.

Mitchell hasn’t permitted herself such autobiographical freedom in ages, and you can hear the relief in the music, in the way the massed guitars (primarily Mitchell’s own, endlessly overdubbed) surge and swoop with exhilarating abandon, borne aloft by Brian Blade’s airy drumming and the periodic flutter of a Wayne Shorter sax fill.

Mitchell invokes William Blake in the title song — her ”tiger, tiger burning brightly” is the same avid creature of naked ambition that led Blake to marvel ”Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”; where Blake’s ”stars threw down their spears,” for Mitchell, they ”chuck down their spears.” Like the English mystical poet, Mitchell is an artistic autodidact, experimenting with guitar tunings and jazz bohemianism the way Blake did poetic meter and religious iconography.

There are a couple of songs (”No Apologies”; the middle section of ”Taming the Tiger”) marred by the sort of sociopolitical commentary that made 1985’s ”Dog Eat Dog” so trying, but even on these the music is lush and enveloping. Thirty-one years after getting a record deal, the kid from Saskatoon has found a way to have (as she recently said of Noël Coward) ”so much skill and so much to say without being heavy.” A-

Taming the Tiger

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Taming the Tiger

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