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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Joni Mitchell's re-recording of "Both Sides, Now" fully captures its lyrical essence

I'm far too young to truly appreciate the meaning this song carries, but I'll take a stab at discussing it anyway.

Tonight, the 44th Annual Kennedy Center Honors aired on CBS, and the incomparable Joni Mitchell was the first to be honored. Her ethereal folk voice and guitar playing has tugged at the heartstrings of listeners the world over for more than a half-century. At the Honors, artists including Norah Jones, Ellie Goulding, Brandy Carlisle, Brittany Howard, and Herbie Hancock paid tribute to Mitchell by performing various excerpts from her masterful career. Howard and Hancock particularly wowed me with their rendition of perhaps Mitchell's most enduring composition, "Both Sides, Now." Their version took my parents by surprise as I watched with them, but I then explained that the performance was inspired in part by Mitchell's 2000 revisiting of the song, on which Hancock played piano. The 2000 version is easily my favorite rendition of the track, but before I provide it for you to listen, I want to tell you a history of "Both Sides, Now" to give you a greater perspective on the later edition.

Remarkable when considering the depth at which the song looks at life, Mitchell wrote "Both Sides, Now" in her mid-20s. It was first recorded by Judy Collins in a baroque pop style in 1967, before Mitchell released her voice-and-guitar version two years later for her album Clouds. These recordings are each memorable in their own right, embracing the song's message with a delicate depiction of changing perspectives on life as one simply lives more. However, Collins and Mitchell both being so young and singing a song that made them sound wiser beyond their years, a disconnect which has always made me feel a disconnect between the lyrics and the performances.

It seems that Mitchell herself also felt this disconnect, because she decided to revisit and completely revamp "Both Sides, Now" in her mid-50s as part of her 2000 album of the same name. Working with string arranger Vince Mendoza and jazz artists including Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Mitchell recorded a suite of orchestral arrangements of jazz standards before finishing the album with a new version of "Both Sides, Now" in the same style, more than three decades after she first recorded it. The song sounds much more natural and sincere when being delivered by an older voice, and the string-led backing makes (paraphrasing Mitchell) "not knowing life at all" significantly more emotional, if not painful.

Whereas Mitchell's original version's faster pace and consistent rhythm made the song's central revelation seem nonchalant, the slower tempo and rubato stylings of the 2000 version add an unmistakable weight to the realization that the narrator, in seeing both sides, realizes how little they truly know.

On top of that, there's the additional impact of the singer's age on the narrative. The Clouds version evokes the ability for someone younger to still be so casual and carefree even after discovering a new perspective. They figure they still have enough life ahead of them to learn their lessons later (something to which I also alluded in yesterday's post on the Smashing Pumpkins' "1979"). Three decades down the line, that time to learn lessons has largely passed, and they're moving towards the back half of their life. In thinking about both sides of clouds, love, and life at age 56 compared to age 23, Mitchell takes much more time to contemplate what having seen both sides really means, and the impact of her attempts to understand various aspects of her existence not bearing any fruit. Ultimately, I hear Mitchell coming to accept her lack of knowing as a fact of life, one which is even more certain given her far greater amount of experience upon revisiting the song.

The 2000 version of "Both Sides, Now" holds a gravity that previous versions do not simply through the greater age and wisdom implied in its narrator being older. In revisiting her song in middle age, Mitchel reclaims it and demonstrates her understanding of its message: nothing in life can be fully understood, and one must embrace the multiple perspectives through which they can see various elements of existence.


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