Joni Mitchell occupies a peculiar place in the pantheon of modern popular music because there's little consensus about where she fits as an artist. The most common and lazy definition is the one about her as a folk singer and singer-songwriter, that she was some sort of 1970s folkie who sang songs about nature and love and all manner of twee things. Her song "Big Yellow Taxi" is probably the one most recognized by people who don't follow music and falls into this category of kind-of-hippie-ish light-headed girlie folk music. But then there's the more exaggerated perception, one that sounds like a compliment but is really a reflection of how we tend to gender-ize the arts. I'm thinking of Allmusic.com's comment that, "when the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as one of the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century." If that isn't hyperbolic, then there's Rolling Stone magazine's claim that she is "one of the greatest songwriters ever." And then there's the third perceptive wor(l)d on Joni Mitchell: the one where you see her name crop up in the most unexpected places. Consider some of the musicians who have gone on record as being obsessive fans of Mitchell:
Led Zeppelin, Sonic Youth, Morrissey, Prince, Bjork, Jeff Buckley, Elvis Costello, Janet Jackson, Slash, Boards of Canada, and my favorite: Maynard James Keenan, whose favorite Joni Mitchell song (and, as it turns out, one my mine, is "Black Crow" from Hejira).
Since I'm spending a lot of time writing this, it's probably redundant to say that I love Joni Mitchell's music. Actually, I'm not sure if "love" is the right word. For starters I don't love all her music. But there's a quality about her music that's both familiar and yet removed; I've found that I've kept coming back to it no matter how my musical tastes have evolved over the past two decades. I don't find her music sophomoric, or "too seventies" or "too folk" or too anything. It's kind of transcended the times. That said, she did produce some bland (and frankly bad) music at times in her career. But for my money, the music she made between 1975 and 1980 was unimpeachable and represents as good a run as anybody ever had in music at that time. She wasn't just a great songwriter, she was/is a brilliant guitarist, beautiful singer, fantastic lyricist, and expert arranger/producer. She also painted all her album covers. She had fully conceived visions for each album as artistic statements.
Before I move ahead, the period that I love, 1975-1980, needs some explaining. If you read anything about Joni Mitchell or watch a documentary about her, they tend to focus the lion's share of attention on what I call "phase 1" of her career, from 1968 to 1974. This was the height of her fame, she sold millions of records, and she was an undeniable folk-rock icon in the U.S. Her music, while often ambitious and unconventional in subtle ways, was still very much grounded in the folk-ish singer-songwriter mode that made stars out of James Taylor, Carole King, Crosby Stills & Nash, America, and their ilk. But it's clear that Mitchell's ambitions were not limited by this genre, and she was way ahead of the pack. Beginning the mid-seventies, she released a series of albums that progressively pushed the boundaries of pop music in new and exciting directions, particularly by embracing jazz and African music. Her guitar tunings, her lyrics, her arrangements, her delivery, all crossed into uncharted territory. It's not surprising that most of these albums were not embraced by the public or the critics, many of whom wanted and expected her to continue in the more traditional singer-songwriter folk rock vein. She clearly alienated a huge chunk of her audience but stuck to her guns. It is to these records that I come back to, again again, mesmerized and sometimes bewildered by the density of her ambition. This was some pretty fucking amazing music from a rock chick who was supremely talented.
So, with that said, let's try and dissect "phase 1" of her career in this post. I'll deal with her more experimental "phase 2" in a second post, and then conclude with her latter day work in "phase 3."
Mitchell's first album, Song To A Seagull (1968), was 'produced' by wonderboy genius David Crosby and is somewhat of an anomaly in her ouevre: it's a peculiar combination of classical sensibilities and folk music. Her lyrics are super dense. This is not the folk of Judy Collins or Peter Paul & Mary. And yes, the words are a little ponderous, in the way that someone who believes that songs should be 'serious.' In the title track, she sings:
I came to the city
And lived like old Crusoe On an island of noise
In a cobblestone sea
And the beaches were concrete
And the stars paid a light bill
And the blossoms hung false
On their store window trees
My dreams with the seagulls fly
Out of reach out of cry
There's a lot of "I" in these songs, and despite the slightly novel classical arrangements, the album is firmly in the confessional singer-songwriter mode that was emerging at the time: so many people with self-titled albums: James Taylor (1968) and Neil Young (1968) come to mind. Below, from a live TV performance in 1971, we see Mitchell doing "Cactus Tree," the final track on Songs To A Seagull.
Mitchell's second album, Clouds (1969), is better known to casual listeners, and the cover, a self-portrait, is often reproduced. The music is very sparse here, mostly just her and an acoustic guitar. (Steven Stills plays the occasional bass). There are several iconic Mitchell songs here, many of which actually predated her first album but which she didn't get around recording until Clouds. The include "Both Sides, Now" and "Chelsea Morning." The former has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Bing Crosby to Hole to Leonard Nimoy to Tory Amos to Clay Aiken (don't ask). It was made most famous by Judy Collins who had a hit with it in 1968, the year before Mitchell's version was out. Here's Joni, from a live performance in 1970. Her voice is tender, light. Probably this is what David Crosby (who "discovered" her) meant when he said "I walked into a cafe, my heart almost stopped..."
Probably the biggest departure on this album, and the one that seems to communicate a little bit of her future ambition, is "Songs to Aging Children" which has been described as "perhaps the most sophisticated chord sequence in all of pop music, employing chords chromatically related by tritones or thirds." "Chromatic" chords are basically chords that include at least one note not belonging to the conventional diatonic scale. Without getting too technical, it's not something that you would find popular singers doing, partly because it creates dissonance and not resolution. Some music scholars (notably Susan McClary) have argued that chromaticism in music can be understood as representing "the other" (racial, sexual, class, etc.) in music. In identifying chromaticism in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (c. 1860s), French feminist and literary critic Catherine Clement called it "feminine stink," whatever that means. Not sure what any of this has to do with Joni Mitchell, but clearly she was experimenting with form already on her second album. Here she is doing "Songs to Aging Children":
Her third album, Ladies of the Canyon (1970) shows further evolution, especially lyrically. Where Mitchell's music had a yearning quality, sprinkled with anticipatory nostalgia, here we have more topical songs, loosely about California--the album title is an allusion to Laurel Canyon, where a bunch of these West Coast rock star types would hang out. As was the tradition, Crosby Stills & Nash were involved in various ways with the album, most critically perhaps in covering the penultimate song "Woodstock" for CSNY's 1970 album Deja Vu. The song "Circle Game" was a direct response to Neil Young's almost hypnotic acoustic "Sugar Mountain," another song about lost youth and getting older.
The biggest song here was undoubtedly "Big Yellow Taxi" which has been played so many times in college dorm rooms that it may be the leading cause of suicide in universities. OK, it's not a bad song but it does have a cloying quality that is hard to escape--"they paved paradise to put up a parking lot" indeed. Mitchell showed up at the infamous Isle of Wight festival in 1970 to play the song, perhaps regretting that she missed Woodstock. She was clearly freaked out to be performing at such a big venue--with 600,000+ people in attendance, some still claim that this was the largest rock festival ever--but nevertheless manages to sound competent. Here is the clip from Murray Lerner's Message to Love documentary about the festival:
Ladies of the Canyon was a big hit; it was the one that catapulted Mitchell to superstardom, at least in established rock circles. She sold lots of records, guest-starred in other people's records, and generally was everywhere. Perhaps the (over) exposure shocked her, for her next move was an intensely personal statement.
So now we get to the real deal: Blue (1971). In pretty much every snooty rock establishment list of the top 100 albums of all time, you will find Blue. It's just one of those axioms that have been encrusted into the official canon of rock history. But it is true that several generations of sensitive young women (and their moms) identify with this album in a way that is too intense to be simply peer pressure. I heard this album sometime in 1986/87-ish, I don't remember -- I went out and got the album, believing that official rock lists must not lie. I put on the album and admit to being slightly underwhelmed. It wasn't so much the songs, but the production, which was very tinny and with huge spaces between the instruments. Over the years, though, I've grown to appreciate it, and to see its undeniable beauty. For one thing, it's really an adult album, dealing with the crises and conundrums of adulthood, circa age 30 (Mitchell was 27). Second, unlike her previous albums, which hinted at melancholia, this album was suffused in sadness, adult sadness, the kind you would see a decade later in Kramer vs. Kramer. And yeah, the melodies are beautiful. It's about as far as you could get with the traditional folk format: tender acoustic guitars, acoustic pianos, light percussion, and sparing backing vocals.
My favorite song on the album is the first, "All I Want" in which the her voice vocal swoops up and down several octaves over a gentle bass drum hop. It's unabashed love. She sings of not falling in love, but about how even when you've been in a relationship for a while, there can still be a kind of mixed up intensity ("Oh I hate you some, I love you some, I love you when I forget about me..."). As far as being in love, whoever encapsulated that total feeling better than her, when she says "Oh I could drink a case of you darling / And I would still be on my feet"? Yet despite these almost euphoric touches, every song here has dark undertones. Even in "A Case of You," she sings:
Just before our love got lost you said
'I am as constant as a northern star'
And I said, 'Constantly in the darkness, where's that at?
If you want me, I'll be in the bar.'
Prince does an amazing cover of this song.
The big hit here was "Carey" which is catchy. But really, the centerpieces are three (almost unnervingly) intense songs: the title track, "River," and "The Last Time I Saw Richard," each harrowing portraits of the costs of giving yourself to others. "River" begins with an adaptation of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer before musing on the end of a relationship: "I wish I had a river / I could skate away on." On "Blue," she talks about "acid, booze, and ass / needles, guns, and grass / lots of laughs." Someon on Sputnikmusic.com writes about the final song "Last Time I Saw Richard":
As perhaps a last folk tale before a move towards diversification in sound, "The Last Time I Saw Richard" tells the tale of an impure despicable man named Richard. As a direct contrast to her hopes and dreams, Richard can be felt as the anti-truth in relationships, the mistrust and also the ugly reality of life. "Richard, you haven't really changed, I said. It's just that now you're romanticizing some pain that's in your head."
As one of the saddest moments of the album, "The Last Time I Saw Richard" embodies lost hope and untruthful relationships. The entire song feels wrong, as her voice reaches unnatural highs, unlike the beautiful high notes in "All I Want." The piano never quite reveals itself, but moments of sadness are coupled with key lyrical lines and peaks of the ugly vocals. It is one of the most intense moments of the album, combining Mitchell's usual subtlety with a vivid portrayal of an ugly soul.
For me, not all of it works. "California" feels meandering and not a little bit plain. "Little Green" could have been left off. (At the last minute actually, she left two excellent songs off the album, "Urge for Going" and "Hunter," but they showed up later on various releases). Musically Blue doesn't have much depth, and this is probably to some extent a fault of the production which is tinny (or maybe it's because she wanted a stripped down minimalist sound); the guitar sounds too trebly and it's like she took out all the mid-range frequencies. She has amazing command of her voice but at the very high notes, she can come off a little grating. It's an acquired taste. (In my opinion, her voice actually improved as she made her way into the seventies.) But although I wouldn't rank Blue as highly as number 30 in the 500 greatest albums of all time (as Rolling Stone magazine did), it's still a superb album. Maybe not Mitchell's best, but in her top 5 for sure.
This is a fantastic clip of her doing a very early version of "All I Want," about a year before Blue was released, so the song was completely new to the audience at the time. This is an inferior version of the song to the one that actually ended up on record but it's still worth hearing. She's such an incredibly talented instrumentalist.
Here is a live version of the song from 1972, using that wonderful trademark Appalachian dulcimer.
The next album was For The Roses (1972), sandwiched as it was between two bonafide commercial successes. It's an odd album and I confess I'm not too familiar with it. The big hit here was the country-ish "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio," a song she wrote sarcastically when her label asked her to produce a hit. It's a cute song but the b-side of the single,"Urge For Going," written apparently in 1966, is a gem of a song. Left off of Blue, the song has been covered by many people. My favorite version is by Crosby & Nash which itself was left unreleased until 1991. Can you think of a better song about wanderlust? Crosby's voice is sublime here:
The sound is much more fleshed out than Blue, and you get the sense that Mitchell is slowly gravitating towards a more full band sound. We have drums, bass, and even electric guitars on "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," a jazz-tinged song about a heroin addict. This is, in fact, the first album, in which she begins infusing her music with jazz inflections, the first step away from traditional folk music. The usual Stills and Nash turn up in various roles--the latter plays the harmonica on "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio." For some reason, the National Recording Registry has added For The Roses to its database, one of 50 recordings chosen that year. And the New York Times noted that "Never does Mitchell voice a thought or feeling commonly" on this album.
Mitchell's commercial apotheosis came with her sixth album, Court and Spark (1974). Here, you see a further forays into full-band rock as well as jazz, in other words a combination of CSNY-ish folk rock with jazz. A whole bunch of slick LA-based session musicians have their names on the album: Larry Carlton, Wilton Felder, etc. The album reached number 2 on the top 100 albums chart in the U.S. And most notably, it was voted the best of album of the year by the famous Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics poll for 1974, no small task given the general fickle nature of Village Voice critics. Besides sporting the best ever title for an album, Court and Spark was one of those rare albums that was intelligent but populist by an artist at the peak of her commercial powers.
The key commercial song here was "Help Me," Mitchell's biggest top 40 hit; she had Tom Scott's jazz band, the L.A. Express, play the backing. They would stick with Mitchell for another couple of albums. I'm not sure why it was such a big hit, but most notably, one Minneapolis teenager named Prince was evidently impressed by it. Later on, when he released his classic Sign o' the Times (1987), he invoked the song in his "Ballad of Dorothy Parker." My favorite song here is "Free Man in Paris," a song apparently about David Geffen. It's been covered by Neil Diamond, Sufjan Stevens, and even Phish (!):
You can see how her chord progressions never go to the place you expect them to. You would never mistake this for a jazz song, but, like another contemporary act, Steely Dan, she was working firmly within the confines of pop but adding little bits of jazz into her music. At its core, though this is a smart pop album, not folk or jazz album and it's on that level that it succeeds. On "Car On the Hill," for example, you hear these beautiful stacked-on harmonies that never stray from the pop format but attain an almost hallucinatory effect. The other thing that I like about this album is that she's actualy funny. This is not like Blue (maudlin, self-directed). This is Joni Mitchell looking outward, smiling, smirking, with a tongue in her cheek at the world around. Her guitar-playing (a Martin acoustic guitar tuned to all sorts of weird scales) is exemplary. She shows here why she was one of the best instrumentalists working in the pop medium in the 1970s. Slant magazine notes that, "Court And Spark is not only the best soundtrack to a Sunday morning ever made, it's also an essential, timeless artifact of an era when pop could be both popular and personal, and would be rewarded critically and commercially for such qualities." If you want the best of the "phase 1" Joni Mitchell, both the commercial and critical high point, there is no better place to start than Court and Spark.
The final album in my "phase 1" is Miles Of Aisles (1974), not a studio album, but her first live album. During the tour for Court and Spark, Mitchell went on a long tour with the L.A. Express. She recorded a series of shows in August 1974 at L.A., which were then edited, mixed, and released later in the year as a double album, Miles Of Aisles. Mitchell's outlook on her life and music are portrayed nicely in a review in (the late great) magazine, Circus, here. The songs pretty much cover her entire career so far, although weirdly without a single song from Court and Spark, but with at least two brand new song ("Jericho" and "Love Or Money"). All the songs from her earlier "folk" period are given the full jazz-pop treatment, reflecting Mitchell's tastes at the time. Some would call it "easy listening" and perhaps some of it is, but she never really lets the music become treacly and/or predictable. The live arrangements are tasteful and the band sympathetic. She noted that:
I'm going to start looking for people who are untried ... who have a different kind of enthusiasm that comes from wanting to support the artist. Like Miles Davis always has a band that are really great, but are cushions for him, you know. I've got a voice I haven't used yet and haven't developed, which is very deep and strong and could carry over a loud band. And I'm very tempted to go in that direction experimentally.
Below, we see her totally transform the song "Rainy Night House" (originally from Ladies Of The Canyon) for her 1974 tour:
Well, that brings me to the end of "phase 1" of Joni Mitchell. We'll carry on with the more exciting "phase 2" soon.