listening to joni: #15: turbulent indigo

Turbulent Indigo, 1994

Front Cover
Turbulent Indigo is a rich album, one that demands repeated listening. Every time I hear it, I discover new sounds and meanings, and I find that it has slyly become one of my most beloved of Joni's work.

The name of the album is itself enigmatic. Many reviewers have noted that it echoes an earlier masterpiece, since the colour indigo is a form of blue. I don't find much in common between 1972's Blue and this one. On Turbulent Indigo, the music is sparse, and the lyrics mostly look outward in social commentary, nothing like the deeply personal lyrics of Blue with resounding piano.

Given the nature of the songs, the album title seems to refer to the times we live in, the turbulence and dark colours of our contemporary world. The title may also reference the violence and inhumanity associated with indigo, the substance: it was part of the slave trade for hundreds of years. (Interesting tangent: the International Center for Indigo Culture seeks to revive the cultivation of indigo through humane and sustainable practices.)

The title track (and the album cover) evoke Vincent Van Gogh, similar to how Joni evoked Beethoven in "Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune)" (For the Roses). This Van Gogh, like Beethoven, is rough-hewn, not socially cultured, the people shuffling past his paintings blind to his wild visions. Over Joni's signature rhythm-and-percussion guitar, to a dark minor key punctuated by Wayne Shorter's lilting soprano sax, she sings:
Brash fields crude crows
In a scary sky
In a golden frame
Roped off
Tourists guided by
Tourists talking about the madhouse
Talking about the ear
The madman hangs in fancy homes
They wouldn't let him near!
He'd piss in their fireplace!
At least two songs on Turbulent Indigo are about the oppression of women. "Magdalene Laundries" was the first time I had ever heard of that particular method of repression, this one brought to you by the Catholic Church in Ireland. (Similar institutions existed in Canada and Australia, too.) The song is told through one of the captive women: Joni gives her a voice.

Hearing this song for the first time led me to seek out every scrap of information I could find about the laundries. There's a movie and a survivors' network, and there's been testimony to the United Nations. The practice is now widely acknowledged as both torture and slavery -- like something from a dystopian novel, but alas, very much of our world. The song still affects me deeply, with tremendous sadness and anger, every time I hear it.

Back Cover

These are from the inside covers.
I like how they're photographed with their frames,
a picture within a picture.
"Not To Blame" evokes the pandemic of violence against women: "The story hit the news from coast to coast, it said you hit the girl you love the most." Incredibly, more than one reviewer wondered if the song was about Jackson Browne and Daryl Hannah, an abusive relationship that was in the news at the time. Somehow I think they've missed the point.
Six hundred thousand doctors
Are putting on rubber gloves
And they're poking
At the miseries made of love
They say they're learning
How to spot
The battered wives
Among all the women
They see bleeding through their lives
Those two lines -- "Six hundred thousand doctors / Are putting on rubber gloves" -- paint an appropriately chilling, gruesome picture.

"Yvette in English," co-written with David Crosby, about a lovely woman in Paris, is so cinematic, I can visualize the whole encounter, the "wary little stray" who is "So quick to question her own worth," but who runs off. Nothing bad happens to Yvette in this song, and it's the only track that is not somber and dark.

From the lyrics booklet.
Although I avoid mapping songs onto life, here I go doing it again -- hopefully only the second time in this blog series. Just as "Solid Love" on Wild Things Run Fast was clearly inspired by Joni's relationship with "Klein," as she always calls him, "Last Chance Lost," must have been inspired by their breakup, which took place before and during this album's creation. Over the simple guitar rhythm, Joni's voice breaks out -- loud, open, holding long, clear notes, like she's sounding a siren or an alarm. The sad line "the shrew will not be tamed" echoes self-recrimination we've heard before, on "River" (Blue) and most agonizingly, in "Amelia" (Hejira). This short song is a sad and beautiful meditation on heartbreak.

On "Borderline," Joni again explores duality, but this time, rather than two aspects of her own mind, she sings about divisions that prevent us from seeing our shared humanity.
Every bristling shaft of pride
Church or nation
Team or tribe
Every notion we subscribe to
Is just a borderline
Good or bad we think we know
As if thinking makes things so!
All convictions grow along a borderline
It's hard not to see ourselves in some piece of that.

The album closes with a seven minute tour de force of the dark night of the soul, inspired by the biblical story of Job.
Let me speak let me spit out my bitterness
Born of grief and nights without sleep and festering flesh
Do you have eyes?
Can you see like mankind sees?
Why have you soured and curdled me?
Oh you tireless watcher! What have I done to you?
That you make everything I dread and everything I fear come true?
On this song, the music becomes more layered; Shorter's soprano sax is given room to run, and Joni does her own backing vocals. The lyrics and music build, darkly but with a feeling of uplift and inspiration, reminiscent of Court and Spark, especially "Down to You". The song is a masterpiece.

The album cover

This album cover is very interesting! Joni has re-imagined a self-portrait of Van Gogh as her own self-portrait, using a Van Gogh-esque style.

There are more Joni paintings inside, and on the back there's a photograph of part of her bookshelf, posted above.

In keeping with the Van Gogh theme, my promo copy of the CD came with a little metallic ear! Allan was still writing about music at the time. We got lots of free stuff, and sometimes the swag was awesome. I made the ear into an earring -- which I don't wear, for fear that it will fall off the hook and be lost forever.

In her own words

From an interview with Mary Campbell of Associated Press.
Joni Mitchell has a new record, a new record company and a new love. She kiddingly calls herself "the new and improved Joni."

"When public interest wanes in a detergent, they stick a 'new and improved' label on it. I'm the new and improved Joni. I'm going to put it on my albums," Mitchell said.

"At 50, you've worked things out. You know yourself pretty well. I saw a Leonard Cohen quote, 'After 50, the anxiety cells in your brain begin to deteriorate."'
Co-writing credit

"Yvette in English" written with David Crosby.

"How Do You Stop" written for James Brown by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight.

Other musicians on this album

Bass, Larry Klein
Guitar, Michael Landau, Steuart Smith
Pedal Steel Guitar, Greg Leisz
Guitorgan, Bill Dillon
Soprano Sax, Wayne Shorter
Drums, Jim Keltner, Carlos Vega
Percussion, Larry Klein
Keyboards, Larry Klein
Background Vocals, Seal, Charles Valentino, Kris Kello

1 comment:

allan said...

I thought you lost that ear years ago!
That was indeed a cool promo item.