The highlight of the set, however, was “Both Sides Now,” a song a 23-year-old Mitchell wrote in 1967, the same year she first performed Newport. At the time, some critics scoffed at the presumptive wisdom of the lyrics: what could a 23-year-old girl possibly know about both sides of life? But over the years, the song has proven to contain unfathomable depths that have only been audible in later performances.
At the age of 57, Mitchell re-recorded a lush version of “Both Sides Now” on his 2000 album of the same name, backed by a 70-piece orchestra. His voice was deeper, elegiac and elegantly tired. “It’s the illusions of life I remember,” she sang at the end of the song, “I really don’t know life at all.”
This version was considered heartbreaking (and used to that effect in a classic scene from the movie “Love, Actually”), but again, it’s easy to find pathos as you get older. Aging inherently brings suffering, weakening and loss – this is not news. What Mitchell’s 2022 rendition of the song affirmed is that it can also bring long-delayed serendipity, gratification and joy. Always adept at reinterpreting her own material, Mitchell has breathed new meaning into some of her most famous lyrics. “I could drink a case of you, and I’d still be standing,” she sang with Carlile, the line becoming not just a lover’s defiance, but a survivor’s boast of life itself.
Part of what’s so heartening about Mitchell’s recent pop cultural revival, like Bush’s surprise resurgence, is that it allows a beloved if somewhat underrated artist to receive her laurels while she is still alive. (Wynonna Judd, still grieving the death of her mother Naomi, was also on stage with Mitchell and wept openly throughout “Both Sides Now” – a visual reminder of a crueler fate and the dichotomy inherent in the song.) In a culture that excessively scrutinizes women as they age, or simply renders them invisible and erases their influence, it seemed like a quietly radical act to honor Mitchell in this way. The young artists had the chance to pay a heartfelt tribute to their eldest; a mature woman who had not yet finished reinterpreting her life’s work took over the stage.
Surrounded by a crowd of friends, fellow musicians and adoring admirers — many of whom weren’t even born when Mitchell wrote “Both Sides Now” — she appeared to sing it this time with a shrug. smiling : I really don’t know life at all. As if to say: you never know, anything can happen. Even that.