🎧 DiS Primers #3: Joni Mitchell

Meant to post this on friday night but was too busy # shambles.
This week we’ve got @bornin69x on the one and only Joni Mitchell.

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Joni Mitchell is the single greatest singer songwriter to emerge in the cultural explosion of the late 1960s. Her songs are clever, sophisticated, nuanced and densely allusive. She can be at turns as poetic as Dylan or as emotionally direct as Carole King, as erudite as Leonard Cohen as gritty as Lou Reed. Musically she is far more adventurous than any of them, moving restlessly away from the acoustic folk of her beginnings into a new kind of airy, abstracted jazz that was so utterly unique that she eventually left the critics and a good chunk of her audience flailing in her wake. She’s an artist in the fullest sense - utterly uncompromising and fiercely independent.

The life
Born in 1943 Joni grew up far from the cultural centre of the post war world in Saskatchewan. She caught Polio when she was 9 (close contemporary Neil Young was infected in the same Canadian outbreak). The illness left her with a weakness in her hands which it made it difficult for her to play some conventional guitar chords. As a result she developed her own idiosyncratic style based on unique tunings which has proved hard for others to copy.

At 20 she had dropped out of school and left home alone to travel across a continent and try to make it as a folk singer in Toronto. At 21 she was penniless and pregnant and alone. She gave her child up for adoption, a trauma which haunted her life until she was reunited with her daughter 30 years later. Characteristically, she said that losing her daughter opened her up as a songwriter and that she lost interest in songwriting after the reunion.

Her songs began to gain attention from about 1967 with artists like Judy Collins having hits with covers. She ended up in Los Angeles, part of the Laurel Canyon set, moving through relationships with the like of David Crosby, Graham Nash and James Taylor. She released three albums of predominantly acoustic music in the late 60s folk idiom which garnered some attention but her fame rests on the stunning series of albums she released starting with Blue in 1970 and building up to Hejira in 1976. In those records she moved from a sophisticated introspection to a more abstract poetics, whilst musically she mined a rich melodic seam moving steadily away from her folk beginnings towards a new type of airy jazz. It’s a run of five albums as good as anyone has ever produced.

By 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and its successor Mingus she had gone so far beyond and outside the artistic expectations placed upon her that her sales and critical reputation plummeted. Those two records- complex, challenging and unique- were massively underrated and have undergone something of a critical re-appraisal recently.

As with many artists of her generation the 80s were not massively kind to Joni. There are good songs on her albums from this period but they are not essential records and, in their attempt to sound contemporary, their production has not aged well. The nineties saw a return to form with the excellent Turbulent Indigo. Early this century she released two excellent albums containing standards and re-interpretations of her own earlier songs, given new life by her deeper, smoky, mature voice.

The music and the playlist
Ten songs is not much to cover a 50 year career (albeit one with significant gaps in) so I’ve chosen to concentrate mainly on her 1970s run of classic albums.

Although those records are clearly her artistic peak, there’s a sense that for some reason many people see her through the lens of the early acoustic folk sound that she quickly moved away from. Her first three albums Song to a Seagull, Clouds and Ladies of the Canyon are excellent records which need no excuses but they only represent a tiny part of her brilliance. I’ve represented them on the playlist with Both Sides Now which was her first hit (in a somewhat saccharine version by Judy Collins). It’s easy to hear the sweetness in the song but like many of her songs it has hidden depths. The essence of it is in duality (the clue’s in the title) and the light and dark is beautifully balanced amongst striking imagery and a beautiful melody.

Good those the early records are Joni entered into a different level of brilliance with Blue, probably her most treasured album and one that has had immense resonance ever since. It’s far more musically adventurous than the earlier records, with complex melodies and rich arrangements and Joni playing a lot more piano. Lyrically it’s very direct and confessional. She addresses her lost child on Little Green (a song which is beautiful if you don’t know what it is about, unbearable if you do). Despite the title, it’s not all sad - there are exuberant love songs like California and A Case of You (memorably covered by Prince). It’s hard to choose from an album where every song is great but I’ve gone first for the rich, stately ballad River and then for the incredible The Last Time I Saw Richard. Richard is a completely new type of song for her, almost conversational in style, and in fact it’s hard to think of many songwriters who could have written it (Tom Waits springs to mind). It’s fantastically constructed, weaving between humour and sadness throughout. The way she moves from bathos to pathos in four lines -

Richard got married to a figure skater
And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator
And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on
And all the house lights left up bright

Is stunning, and when she moves from the sprechgesang style she uses for most of the song to sing the refrains at the end of each verse it’s just heartbreaking. It’s a song without choruses, gripping throughout.

Blue was a big success critically and commercially and has remained massively popular. The successor For The Roses has traditionally been a little neglected (not helped by the fact that it was then followed by her most successful album of all). To a degree For The Roses is a step back towards the sparser style of the early records, mainly acoustic and simply sung and played. It’s her most starkly personal record, dealing predominantly with the unhappy end of her relationship with James Taylor and in particular with his drug addiction and unfaithfulness. It’s as close as Joni got to a conventional ‘break up album’ (and she had lots of break ups) but characteristically she is not broken by the break up as she makes clear on Woman of Heart and Mind and other songs. It’s not as immediate as some of her other records of this period but reveals its gifts with repeated listens, a powerful set of songs any singer songwriter would be proud of. I’ve chosen the title track For The Roses mainly because it showcases her incredible (and very underrated) guitar playing.

Court and Spark was a radical change of direction. There are sad songs on it but it is predominantly an upbeat, joyous record with bright, engaging arrangements. It was her most commercially successful record at the time and, if it weren’t for a couple of throwaway songs on the second side would probably be her best. Its core is the amazing trio of songs on the first side, the sparkling Help Me and Free Man in Paris followed by the beautiful, melancholy People’s Parties, as good a song as anyone’s ever written about being lonely in a crowd. It was a wrench having to leave any of those songs off the playlist.

Once again Joni didn’t let success go to her head, veering wildly towards the left field with her next record The Hissing of Summer Lawns. I’ve included the wonderful In France They Kiss on Main Street, which could have fitted on Court and Spark, but elsewhere on the album the jazz influences are beginning to appear, with complex, fractured melodies. On The Jungle Line she built a song around the sound of traditional drummers from Burundi, one of the first Western artists to incorporate what would come to be known as ‘World music’. On The Boho Dance (one of Bjork’s favourite songs) she brilliantly skewers the pretension of art that prefers to stay in cellars rather than engaging with the world.

Those jazz influences finally bloomed on the amazing Hejira, my favourite of her albums and one of my favourite 5 albums by anyone. It’s a record built around the theme of travel and movement. Its lyrics are sometimes direct and simple, often complex and allusive, but the stories they tell are always about people in flux, on the road or in the clouds, in motels and roadside motels, alone by choice or circumstance. Musically it’s astonishing, massively enriched by the start of her collaboration with Jaco Pastorius - the amazing and utterly unique jazz bassist whose airy, slurring fretless bass dominates the record. It’s an album that demands to be listened to in full, but I’ve represented it with its first two tracks Coyote and Amelia.

Coyote is one of the more straightforward songs on the album, an account of a brief relationship (supposedly with the actor/writer Sam Shepard) stymied by circumstances which is elevated by the richness of its imagery and the brilliance of Pastorius’s playing. It’s a grown up song about an affair between grown ups, which is more unusual than you might think. Amelia though is something different, my favourite Joni song and possibly my favourite song of all time (I waver between two or three candidates). Ostensibly it’s a song about 1930s aviatrix Amelia Earhart but Joni uses that as a jumping off point for a song which touches upon the loneliness of travel and of life in general, with Amelia alone in the skies an avatar for her own lonely and rootless life. The imagery of the song is striking throughout, with the vapour trails matching the strings of the guitar, the geometric farms below. Over it all hangs the spectre of Earhart’s mysterious disappearance

A ghost of aviation
She was swallowed by the sky
Or by the sea, like me, she had a dream to fly
Like Icarus ascending
On beautiful foolish arms

The song then brilliantly swings back to the personal with one of my favourite verses of all time, explicitly referring back to the cloud imagery of Both Sides Now

Maybe I’ve never really loved
I guess that is the truth
I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitude
And looking down on everything
I crashed into his arms

It’s a truly astonishing song that means so much to me.

After Hejira Joni followed her muse further into the version of jazz she had been constructing on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and then on Mingus. Pastorius stayed around, supplemented by stellar jazz musicians like Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. The songs often have a fractured structure which resists the memory, they seem to float past without ever quite landing. These albums were considered follies at the time. There is no question that they are patchy and there is a sense that the songwriting doesn’t quite match the ambition of the settings. I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone starting with them but they are interesting and rewarding records for those willing to give them a bit of time. Given that I only have one song left on the playlist to represent the rest of her career I have included Otis and Marlena, a great song from Don Juan heard here in a much later version recorded for her 2002 album Travelogue on which she revisited some of her best songs with an orchestra and an amazing cast of musicians including Hancock, Shorter, Brian Blade, Kenny Wheeler and others. Her voice, deepened by age and lifetime of smoking, is incredibly moving here I think.

Favourite Track:
Amelia

Favourite Album:
Hejira


10 track playlist:

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good timing posting this on father’s day though as i bought this for my old man (hehe)


I love joni mitchell loads

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An excellent primer and excellent use of the word “sprechgesang”. Gonna mainline those ´70s albums for the rest of the day I think

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One of the greatest.

Great write up shrewbie.

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Fantastic writing @bornin69x

What a great article.

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It was bornin69x who did it. feel bad even getting likes for these threads, moderators please transfer them all to their intended recipients

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Ah right, well well done @bornin69x !

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What an amazing write up @bornin69x

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She’s one of those rare musician/painters who’s actually a really good painter.

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That’s a great write up @bornin69x. Never been able to get into Joni on the few occasions when I’ve dipped into a couple of her albums (‘blue’ and ‘the hissing of summer lawns’) but you’ve made me want to give her another try via your primer which I’ll get onto at some point today.

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love this writeup & playlist btw, only read it properly after I posted it. also only just realised how iconic the Hejira covert art is

think i prefer the later version of both sides now to the original. what a song