The Beginning of Survival is a whopping 16-track collection from Joni Mitchell's Geffen period, recorded between 1985-1998, and carefully chosen by the artist as "commentaries on the world in which we live." One has to wonder about the title: if by saying this is "the beginning of survival," Mitchell is referring to her own retirement strategy -- she is no longer making new records. Or perhaps that we are now at the end of actual living and are on the other side of the garden of Eden she referred to in her song "Woodstock" from so long ago. Are we at the beginning of a new era, one in which the strategies we once used to exist in a society together have been erased and new ones have come into play, where we make our way merely as individuals in isolation from and in competition with one another? Or perhaps the question is one of beginning to survive as a culture despite the onslaught of mediated images that now cancel out "the real thing," with rampant greed and the lust for objects of desire and power rather than desire itself.
The sequencing here is so meticulous and effective that The Beginning of Survival feels like a topical song cycle rather than a compilation. Tracks trace meaning and impression onto other tracks; they inform and elucidate themes of resistance in the face of the dark deluge that began the culture war in earnest during the 1980s, and which has come to signify the nature of American society in the 21st century with no signs of anything but further fragmentation. The opening words of "The Reoccurring Dream" that begin this cycle state: "This is a reoccurring dream/Born in the dreary gap between/What we have now/And what we wish we could have...." A line that signifies a double meaning, one that is caught between the simulacrum of what we are offered as life, and the drive for life itself. And so it goes from this screed against consumerism to a track like "The Windfall (Everything for Nothing)," moving on to the weariness with culture in "Dog Eat Dog," "The Beat of Black Wings," "Fiction," and "Sex Kills," to the meditation on other cultural, social, and ecological injustices in "The Three Great Stimulants," "Lakota," "Ethiopia," "No Apologies," and "The Magdalene Laundries," to the place of the spirit and the allegories of the great spiritual lessons in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" and "Passion Play," to the faint glimmer of hope in "Cool Water" and "Impossible Dreamer." Back and forth, around, down, and in, these songs swirl with her trademark weave of jazz, rock, and pop into a long meditation on what has happened, and where we find ourselves, in this new world, truly "at the beginning of survival," deprived of the strategy of history because it has been canceled out. This is a provocative, wonderfully articulated, and gorgeously illustrated compilation (there is a series of nine of Mitchell's thematic paintings and one self-portrait of Mitchell adorning the booklet) that sheds new light not only on the tunes, but on Mitchell's enduring contribution.