Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, and the Torch Song Tradition

By Larry David Smith | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 9
The Auteurs

The concluding chapter of this book’s companion piece—Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and American Song—opens with a comparison of those artists’ third albums because a musician’s third release is almost always a telltale event. Conventional wisdom suggests that most musicians are signed to record labels with about an album and a half of strong material. Once that initial wave of creativity passes through the first two albums, the artist’s third project offers indications as to whether or not that individual or band has the staying power to warrant further investment. Moreover, an individual or group’s artistic direction often settles by the third album in a fashion that says something about their talent, their ability to negotiate with the industry, and their professional future. So let us follow the same strategy here, and consider Elvis Costello’s and Joni Mitchell’s third album releases as a starting point for this concluding analysis.

Earth Mother’s third album, Ladies of the Canyon, is certainly a pivotal record. Not only does it feature her first recording with a backing band (of sorts) and preview her sonic future, but it also solidifies the thematic foundation for her entire lifework. Ladies of the Canyon says it all. It contains a trademark opening track, the life celebration “Morning Morgantown.” It features the auteur’s signature portrait-with-a-point narrative strategy by way of “For Free.” It offers a foundational philosophical statement, “The Arrangement.” It displays her “doughnut” storytelling strategy in which she introduces one topic with a specific point that is then applied to another, unrelated topic (“Big Yellow Taxi”). It presents the generational anthem/ societal complaint, “Woodstock.” Finally, it offers two Earth Mother portraits (“Ladies of the Canyon” and “The Circle Game”) as well as a host of Mitchell’s relational challenge story lines: “Conversation,” “Willy,” “Rainy

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Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, and the Torch Song Tradition
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents ix
  • Preface xi
  • Introduction xiii
  • Part I - Joni Mitchell 1
  • Chapter 1 - The Artist 5
  • Chapter 2 - The Impulse 25
  • Chapter 3 - The Oeuvre 37
  • Chapter 4 - The Exemplars 101
  • Part II - Elvis Costello 123
  • Chapter 5 - The Artist 127
  • Chapter 6 - The Impulse 151
  • Chapter 7 - The Oeuvre 165
  • Chapter 8 - The Exemplars 233
  • Part III - Conclusion 251
  • Chapter 9 - The Auteurs 253
  • References 289
  • Index 309
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