Ah, Joni! So great for so long, and then…?
The facts are well-known: six great albums, a hiatus, a change of style, then thirteen modest albums.
Appearing at first like a typical folkie-waif, Mitchell soon revealed herself as an extraordinarily multi-dimensional talent and musical authority. A fine voice, remarkable guitar work with innovative tunings, effective piano work, amazing song-writing skills, and she did most of her own production. We’re getting up around Brian Wilson’s level of multi-talentedness here, admittedly without the parade of hits, but only because a somewhat different direction is pursued. This staggering creativity!
The first album, Songs to a seagull has dated a little, or at least, so many say, but not to me. It’s gorgeous. It has a naive quality that she seems to have worked hard to put aside through much of her later career (she insists that she was never a folkie), preferring instead to project the image of a cosmopolitan sophisticate, which of course she now is, but I kind of like the early image as well.
Her second album, Clouds, continues the waifishness in some songs, most especially the brilliant opening track Tin angel, then I think I understand, and Songs to aging children. Her more complex and conversational style is presented with I don’t know where I stand and That song about the midway (with that gorgeous line “You stood out like a ruby in a black man’s ear”). This is the conversational direction that she later developed so effectively. Gallery began her path towards the more sophisticated and cosmopolitan later image. The album also includes her first truly great songs: Chelsea morning and Both sides now, the latter an absolute classic. There’s really only one flop, The fiddle and the drum, although Roses blue is also a bit of a step down from the other material.
Her third album Ladies of the canyon continues the folkie style in the opening Morning Morgantown, a lovely melody with effective words. Then comes For Free, another truly great song, one of her very best, monumentally sad but also wonderfully life-affirming, and also with fine piano work. This is what song should be like!
Then comes Conversation, a fine but somewhat limited tune. Then a return to the waif style with Ladies of the canyon, perhaps a bit too sweet but I love it; just a beautiful construction. Willy has a marvellous melody that builds up and around and down and up again before returning home. It’s through-composed, has an unexpected ending, great piano work, and is another truly great song. Then The arrangement develops further her conversation style, but there’s not much melody to it and it doesn’t really say much; it’s really just filler.
Rainy night house is another great song, a brilliant tune with a lovely break-out choir section in the middle verse. The lyrics are evocative, with a fine repeating phrase to finish each verse. The piano intro is fine but I’m not convinced that the vocal phrase at the end adds much. The priest is a modest tune, but with some wonderful lyric lines such as “he saw me young and he saw me old” and “he took his contradictions out and he splashed them on my brow.”
Blue boy is a fine tune with a nice little tail at the end of the verse, and a powerful lyric about idealisation and its inevitable disappointment. Intellectually this subject matter is a major stride forward from most of Ladies of the canyon and her folkie songs. There is also a nice pun on the word “pain” in the second verse (or at least I assume it’s intentional and not just a spelling mistake by a secretary ’cos that’s what I’d try to do).
Personally I hate Big yellow taxi, not least for the silly giggle at the end, but you can’t argue with success and it was her one big hit; Judy Collins had an earlier hit with Both sides now. Then comes Woodstock, a hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and another of her absolute best with fine stretched-out melodic lines and excellent lyrics. There’s a wonderful electric piano accompaniment and the entire setting seems to my ear to be much more powerful than the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young version. The image of “the bombers riding shotgun in the sky and they were turning into butterflies” is of course acid-imagery, and the line “we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” is timeless. This whole song is just exquisite.
The circle game is another masterpiece, anthem-like. The phrase “we’re captive on the carousal of time” is the kind of thing you dash off because it sounds impressive, and then you spend the rest of your life painfully discovering what it really means (Both sides now is similar). Actually, this tune is not all that great, merely pleasant, the chorus is the best bit, but the evocative imagery and the developing story-line – a boy growing up and the lessons we might all take from such an experience – lift it wonderfully. This is Vic Chesnutt territory in which a good but not exceptional tune takes on epic qualities because of the lyric contained within it.
The album Blue is spoken of as her best. It probably is, but I have a caveat with the title song. The album opens with the fine All I want, a tad twee perhaps, but in a friendly and even quite insightful manner (I’d love to make her mistakes, to suffer from her excesses). There are some fine comic lines like “I want to wreck my stockings in some juke-box dive” and the disarming “I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you” (is his hygiene that bad?) The passionate phrase “I want to belong to the living, alive, alive” is wonderful. Not much melody but enough to get the job done.
Then comes another of her finest, My old man. I love that little tangle of notes on the line “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall…” Inspired! This is a truly great love song! Then comes Little green, a semi-autobiographical song of loss; Mitchell adopted out a baby when quite young. This is, IMHO, her best song, exquisitely gentle, infinitely sad. The line “Child with a child pretending” always brings tears to my eyes, and then come those close breath-taking modulations, first on the word “Green” and then again on the word “colours” before returning to the home key. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Carey is a wonderfully happy song, with the lovely phrase “Oh you’re a mean old daddy but you’re out of sight.” Unusually for Mitchell she repeats the first half-verse again towards the end, but then follows it with a new second half-verse. It achieves what she wants and I don’t think there are many lessons to be drawn from it, but it shows that talents at this level cannot be constrained by habitual rules.
Then follows Blue. This is by far the weakest song on the album melodically, and while the lyrics sound like they really must mean something deep I suspect they probably don’t. There’s an ocean metaphor and allusions to emptiness, and some hard images (“acid, booze and ass, needles, guns and grass…”) but it’s all really just a bundle of phrases wrapped around what might as well be an advertising jingle in another context. “Everybody’s saying that Hell’s the hippest way to go…” might well be “Everybody’s saying that Colgate gives the brightest smile…” But here’s the rub: the total playing time of the complete album is only 35 minutes and 21 seconds. Without Blue it would be an unacceptably short 32 minutes 21 seconds. Something had to be done. So I suspect Mitchell dug deep into her scrapbook, spent a couple of hours at the piano, and came out with Blue. It still wasn’t much, but it solved part of the problem. Then some music exec had a brilliant idea: name the album after that song, as if it is centrepiece that the other songs revolve around. If we poor benighted fools don’t see the deep and meaningfulness of it all, well, I guess that’s just our limitations. At least, that’s my take on it; I think Blue is merely elaborate filler.
California is another great song, beautiful melody and lyrics, and I love the pedal steel guitars in the background. And I love her juxtaposition of “lots of pretty people there reading Rolling Stone, reading Vogue…” I might have described them a little less charitably but she’s stays dignified. This flight tonight is one of the best of her conversational or subjective songs. Mitchell is said to have pioneered writing about subjective matters in popular music, a kind of semi-confessional style, and perhaps she did, although plenty had gone before. But in this song she really digs in and makes her tensions, anxieties and doubts the subject matter of the whole song. It’s all quite wonderful.
River is another of her very best. The Jingle Bells melody sets a wonderful mood, sad and ironic. It’s Christmas time but in the midst of all this celebration her desire is just to “make a lot of money then quit this crazy scene.” Then sadly she sings, “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” Why? Well, she’s misbehaved. She had this great guy who “loved me so naughty [he] made me weak at the knees” but “I’m so hard to handle, I’m, selfish and I’m sad. Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I’ve ever had.” This is wonderful stuff, and the confessional details work as well. Then the Jingle Bells melody returns at the end to give it all extra poignancy. But that little tail, an aside tacked on to the end of each verse, seemingly as an afterthought: “Oh I wish I had river I could skate away on,” is utter genius.
A case of you is a really complex melody with several twists and turns. The lyric opens with a marvellous conversational snippet: “You said ‘I am as constant as the Northern Star.’ I said ‘Constant in the darkness. Where’s that at?’” The rest is quite confessional and it all works well.
The last time I saw Richard is a major, major work, perhaps the best of her conversational style, maybe even her best lyric ever! It begins with an extended solo piano part, then the lyric begins darkly and builds towards the phrase “pretty lies.” Richard is implicitly predicting that she will end up alone (“all romantics meet the same fate”). She then turns his message back against him, saying that he’s really no different from her, and that he’s just romanticising some pain, and she demands to know when he’ll get himself back on his feet? Then the song comes into the present and she tells us how it all turned out. Seems that they are both just as screwed-up as each other, except that now he is married (to a figure skater) and she’s alone, hiding behind a bottle, cynical and drunk and boring someone (us) in some dark cafe, and virtually repeating his prophecy that “all good dreamers pass this way someday.” Unlike him she hasn’t yet got herself on her feet; she still pines for the time that she will get her gorgeous wings and fly away.
This multi-layered song has so many little gems including the barmaid in fishnet stockings and a bow tie, the hushed “Listen!” the phrase “eyes full of moon,” the wonderfully longing repetition of “Love so sweet,” and the description “he drinks at home most nights now with the TV on and all the house lights left up bright.” Hey, I’ve done that! This is a truly substantial and intelligent song, as good as pretty much anything in the classical repertoire, with a deceptively complex melody.
The album Blue was a milestone for Mitchell, the fulfilment of her promise and maturity. It’s an embarrassment of riches, overflowing with beauty and wisdom. But it was to be mostly downhill from there. Her next album For the roses only has three really fine songs on it (although one is perhaps her equal-best). The others are good, her melodic gift remains, but her subjectivity becomes increasingly a matter of taste. Like it or not, most of us just aren’t that interesting, and when it comes to describing our mundane daily feelings the unfortunate question ‘So what?’ tends to arise. Small is not big, no matter how we argue it. Yes, the minutiae of life has its very necessary place, but still we long for heroes and big issues. That’s just human nature.
Banquet is a wonderful song, a metaphor for the plight of the disadvantaged, powerful and melodic; truly great! But it can’t match the intensity of her next and possibly greatest song, Cold blue steel and sweet fire. The slappy guitar begins lazily, the vocal seems at first to be casual, but the lyrics are immediately gripping. “Cold blue steel out of money, one eye for the beat police, sweet fire calling…” Soon we are introduced to a “hollow grey fire-escape thief” and his Lady Release, and asked if we’d like to leave someone a letter, and told we can either come now or later. This is dark, and not at all confessional or conversational; this really is heroes and big issues! The melody twists and turns, with sub-sections and rises and falls while a jazzy saxophone wails in the background. When we come to “pin-cushion prick fix this poor bad dreamer” we know what it’s all about. This – and Banquet – are descriptive, objective social commentary of a kind she’s not done much of before, or at least, not to this level.
Barangrill is another wonderful song, dreamy, almost hallucinogenic, a pause at a fill-up station on the highway going somewhere perhaps, maybe, sometime. The tune isn’t all that much really, but it all hangs together so well that it’s immensely satisfying.
The rest of the songs on For the roses and quite good, but increasingly the melodic inventiveness diminishes, though it never disappears, and her confessional style comes to dominate. Lesson in survival is a mood piece to me; it doesn’t really go anywhere but it has some fine lyrics (“campers in the kitchen…”). It introduces a problem that hovers around her work from this point on – how to measure it against her earlier standards. You don’t top a song like Little Green, though you may equal it. A reviewer was later to say of her album The hissing of summer lawns that “With this album Joni Mitchell stops being a powerful prophetic voice and becomes an obscure minor artist” (or something like that) and whoever it was that said that was right. There are some nice songs still to come but overall the level of invention is much lower. Let the wind carry me is a good example of this; the lyric “Papa’s faith is people, Mama she’s always cleaning, Papa brought home the sugar, Mama taught me the deeper meaning” is really great, but then it becomes more confessional and I for one lose a bit of interest.
The title song For the roses is a really fine song, memorable and pleasing, but not at her earlier level. See you sometime continues in the same vein, as does Electricity. You turn me on I’m a radio is good fun with a wonderful lyric: “You don’t like weak women, you got bored too quick, you don’t like strong women ’cos they’re hip to your tricks, it’s been dirty for dirty….” but melodically it’s slight. Blonde in the bleachers is a minor song, as are Woman of heart and mind and Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s theme).
The album Court and Spark contains some fine songs; certainly the title track is a sublime melody. Help me is in her confessional style again and very pleasant, but here we see her veering towards a more jazzy style of arrangement. Free man in Paris is wonderful, not really great but very enjoyable and with an excellent lyric, and it continues the jazzy style of arrangement; I think we begin to hear the influence of Tom Scott and the L.A. Express here. Of the rest, Raised on robbery is a lot of fun (“I’m a pretty good cook, sitting on my groceries);” I refuse to believe now that I’m the only one who writes uncouth lyrics! Twisted is a cover, so that leaves six middling songs. Of course, a middling song by Joni Mitchell is still pretty damn good. There are lots of memorable phrases, little melodic flourishes and evocative lyrics among them, but overall the level of invention is just a notch down from her best stuff.
That’s six first-class albums, after which she withdrew from writing for a while, did some painting – she’s apparently quite good at that too – and when she continued making albums it was very clear that she’d lost some interest. There were still some fine songs, for example, Amelia on the album Hejira, and The hissing of summer lawns from the album of the same name, but she had changed direction towards a more jazzy style, more percussive and less melodic, and her sales declined, until apparently another generation discovered her earlier material and then took to buying her more recent releases as well; her style-change wasn’t an issue to them because they were just as aware of her later material as they were of her earlier albums. Even among the less melodic later songs there are still a few gems, for example, Sex kills from the album Turbulent indigo. But most of her later material is really just for the true believers.
In my pantheon of great modern songwriters I place Joni Mitchell in a small elite group at the very top: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson and Joni Mitchell. They are all pretty-much equals IMHO. Then I take the tiniest step down to David Ackles, Vic Chesnutt and Leonard Cohen, and of course there are others such as Ray Davies who was truly great, and so was Roger Miller. Going back a little further there is the genius of Hank Williams. I don’t rate the more recent writers at quite the same level, but I’m happy to stand corrected; I was out of the scene for a long time with my career and hence I lost touch with popular culture. I only discovered Vic Chesnutt by accident a few years ago, and one fellow I intend to listen to a lot more of is Jackie Leven, who unfortunately died a couple of years back.
But Joni? Well, she’s utterly distinctive, unique and wonderful, and she had skills and an intelligence that no one else had. I will soon be writing a more detailed essay about melody in song and will include an analysis of some of her songs to illustrate the techniques she used and why she was so successful.