Blue – Joni Mitchell

Blue

After a succession of hits from previous albums, being labeled as a spokeswoman for a generation, and becoming fairly famous Joni was in the odd position of having relative creative freedom to record whatever she wanted but feeling the pressure of a celebrity status she didn’t want. Following a number of low points involving broken relationships and putting a child up for adoption it was clear that her next album wasn’t going to be a dainty jaunt through a forest of hippy ideals. The real world was presenting some hard truths for her and for her countrymen, and songs about imagined journeys and pastoral pleasantries did not seem to fit. Ever the honest artist, Joni set about recording her most personal work which would go on to become her most famous, her most loved, and arguably best album.
`All I Want’ in familiar enough fashion with Joni’s unusual guitar style before her voice starts. The first thing to notice is that all her trademarks are here- soaring vocals, interesting and multi melodies, thoughtful, honest lyrics. She weaves a love story about falling for someone and eventually falling apart and searching again. The arrangement is as sparse as most of early songs are, mostly just her and guitar, yet she makes it sound dense and full of depth.
`My Old Man’ opens with the equally familiar piano tone from her previous album and sings again of love. The lyrics are joyful- the sort of song everyone wishes someone would write for them. There is a darker side to the song which permeates the whole album, speaking of how she feels when her loved one is gone- the emptiness and anguish, and of her fear of his absence. These messages are universal and Joni writes and performs them in such a way that they sound utterly personal to each individual listener. Both the verse and minor chorus melodies are among the most beautiful and catchy she has ever written, and the staccato style ending adds a nice twist.
`Little Green’ is among the most sweet songs ever written, by Joni or anyone else. The sad, touching lyrics fit exquisitely with a soft melody and light guitar as Joni sings about the child she gave up for adoption when she was younger. The song is tinged with both sadness and hope, regret and the knowledge that what she did was for the best. She sings for her daughter in the hope she has a happy ending and imagines a better life for her with all the joys a childhood should be full of. She sings both to her daughter and the new parents, but mostly for herself. It is almost like a letter for her daughter to read when she is older, telling of her father, explaining her reasons, and telling her of all the good and bad things she may experience in her life.
`Carey’ is a lighter, more up-tempo song speaking of Joni’s travels through Europe, particularly Crete in the early 70s where she went on a pseudo- hippy trip to escape her growing fame and fortune in America. She sings fondly of meeting a man and having an affair with him which she knew would not last so lives each minute like it was her last. The song is mostly fun with nice lyrics and memorable melodies reminiscent of Big Yellow Taxi.
`Blue’ is the title track and probably the biggest downer on the album, musically at least with its shadowy tone, creeping pianos, and doleful, lonely vocals. She dedicates the song possibly to someone she knew, possibly to an emotion, singing about exploration, wallowing in depression, struggling to get back to `lots of laughs’. The piano intro sets a dark tone, and Joni’s low and lonely vocals add to the shades. Thankfully the song is perfectly timed meaning it doesn’t become over long and downbeat.
`California’ brightens things up with a lighter song speaking of Joni’s love for California and desire to come home after months in the wilderness. Joni fills the song with dreamy lyrics, bright melodies, and high notes ensuring that the listener is lifted. It gives another glimpse of the early 70s to the modern listener, nice to not similarities and differences between the hippy of then and the middle class back-packer of now.
`This Flight Tonight’ continues the more upbeat feel with a highly melodic and quicker guitar based song where Joni sings of her regret of leaving a lover behind. It is probably the least memorable song on the album for me, but remains a great song and I enjoy the mocking `they’re playing’ section.
`River’ and the following song are possibly the two best songs that Joni would write. From the Jingle Bells intro merging into Joni’s heart wrenching vocals are longing lyrics, the intertwining melodies, the moments of high sorrow, love, and regret which we all know all too well, it is emotional song writing at its finest. A great break-up song, a great song to chill you by the fire, a song to turn any listener into a Joni fan.
`A Case Of You’ is lyrically and musically one of Joni’s best songs- melodic, emotional, honest, inventive. One of the best love songs of all time it caters for all types of romantics- the bedroom bohemian, to the school yard gazer, from wife to husband, to first time lovers. The lyrics of course equate love with wine, intoxication, desire with addiction, of everlasting devotion.
`Last Time I Saw Richard’ closes the album in a darker, more downbeat fashion in a mournful, regretful way. The extended piano intro is unusual for the album, the lyrics depicting the last meeting with a lost lover. The lyrics stand out, original yet familiar, imaginative and poetic displaying a certain bitterness, teaching all dreamers a valuable lesson. It is one of the songs I don’t listen to as much as others on the album as it lacks the melodies of other songs, but makes up for it by being possibly the most emotional. Angry, sad, let down Joni lets the song fade out like a candle in a dark café. Blue is album of various musical styles each drenched with a multitude of emotions, the overriding feeling being of the blues. From the agony depicted on the cover to the dark and honest nature of the lyrics you would be forgiven for thinking it is a depressing affair. However there are many wonderful light moments, showing that there are many shades of blue just as there are many shades of life. Like the lyrics of Little Green say, there will be good times mixed with bad and even in the darkest moments on the album there is so much to adore. Rarely does an artist paint so vivid and universal a picture, yet make it personal and entirely her own. From a songwriting perspective each piece is perfect, packed full of ideas, memorable melodies, good playing, and of course the peerless singing we would expect. Possibly the best album of 1971 remains one of the best ever.

Joni Mitchell- Ladies Of The Canyon

Ladies Of The Canyon

Joni’s third album is a massive leap forwards in terms of quality, melodically stronger, musically more adventurous, thematically there is a wider range, and it is also lyrically sharper. Blue may be the more critically acclaimed and overshadows much of her other work, but this is equally flawless and indeed contains more famous songs. Her first big hit Big Yellow Taxi is here, as well as one of the defining songs of the Sixties `Woodstock’. With this album Joni became the spokesperson for a generation and every song both sounds eternally rooted in the days they were written, and as fresh and relevant today. Ladies conveys the freedom and ideals of the Hippy movement, but is also full of the darker introspection which would fill her next album. At turns joyous and bleak, and never less than mesmerizing Ladies Of The Canyon is an album which stands high above the singer-songwriter offerings of today and is one which every music lover should hear.

`Morning Morgantown’ opens the album in storybook style with Joni telling us about an idyllic morning in a small town, who she sees and everything that happens. With pleasant melodies, soft guitar accompanied by soothing piano in the chorus it is an elegant opener which has more in common with her previous album.

`For Free’ is my favourite song on the album and the first which is primarily dominated by the piano. Casting many shadows with its atmosphere it speaks of the dark side of fame, causing loss of self, selfishness, guilt. Self-deprecating, ironic, and supremely descriptive the lyrics are among Joni’s best. Avoiding a standard verse chorus convention the song grows in depth as it continues, with subtle strings added in the second half, and the piano melodies varying with each line to avoid repetition. The only part I’m not overly fond of is the horn ending hinting at her growing jazz influences which would become more prevalent after Blue.

`Conversation’ is a more light hearted and upbeat song, even though it deals with unrequited love. The lyrics speak of a woman trying to `free’ a man from what she believes is a one sided, futile relationship. Essentially she is acting as the other woman but you can’t help but side with her with melodies and passion like this. This also features possibly the best vocal vibrato in any song ever with Joni using her voice like an additional instrument more so than anything else she has done. Like `For Free’ it has an unusual expansive ending which adds greater depth and variation, again showing her own growth and experimentation.

`Ladies Of The Canyon’ follows Joni’s usual story telling format, introducing us to a number of characters and providing us with their routines and quirks. The unusual tuning which marks the album stands out here mixed with her finger picking and harmonious `do di dos’. This seems like a sequel to `Morning Morgantown’ and as the title track it contains most of the characteristics of the album as a whole.

`Willy’ is an unashamed song of devotion, without a hint of irony and remains utterly charming and powerful today. Joni’s vocal melodies mixed with those of the piano is one of the most wonderful things to happen in musical history, never more beautiful than here as it builds up to `there are still more reasons why I love him’. As with the rest of the album there is the background hint of darkness due in part to the tone of the piano and a few lyrical flourishes. It is one of the best underrated love songs ever.

`The Arrangement’ brings any hints of darkness from previous songs to the forefront. The soft, unsure, unsteady opening revealing the uncertainties and regrets of the narrator. Speaking of loss, it is quite a quick song but leaves a lasting impression with the fade out vocals of `it could have been more’. For some reason the double notes played frequently throughout the song remind me of the rainy intro to A Link To The Past.

`Rainy Night House’ continues the dark themes, with soft background strings adding to the ominous piano. The almost overlong piano intro is perfect, evoking feelings of gazing out from a window into a rainy night. There are many wonderful vocal moments (`the upstairs choir’) and again everything blends together seamlessly. Again there is a sense of loss and regret, speaking of a past which can never be regained. Again there is an unusual ending, dissect it any way you like.

`The Priest’ brings back Joni’s guitar skills with a tale of freedom, searching, religion, and ever so small hints of a drug infused trip. The rhythm here is interesting, thumping ever onwards giving a sense of an eternal journey. Again it reminds me of other works, in this case the movie version of Stephen King’s The Stand.

`Blue Boy’ is another atmospheric piano led song with Joni’s vocals deliberately almost breaking in parts to give a sense of fragility. As always the lyrics are open for interpretation with suggestions of love of sadness yet yearning for recovery, loss, war, mourning.

`Big Yellow Taxi’ is the song you will probably have heard in some form even if you haven’t heard this album or any other Joni song. I like the way Joni’s voice sounds completely different on this song than any other on the album- she sounds more like a child. The immortal melody is pop brilliance, the lyrics all the more important today, the sound completely joyous and filled with a love for life.

`Woodstock’ is Joni’s song for a generation, speaking not only of the famous festival which she never attended but watched on TV, but of the movement as a whole. Almost every lyric here has been used as the title of another song/movie/biography/documentary about the times, from `We are stardust’ to `Child of God’. Haunting at times, Woodstock is one of the most memorable songs on the album.

`The Circle Game’ closes the album in a suitably cyclical way, sounding at times like Morning Morgantown but having its own wonderful tune. Singing of the life of one man, from birth to death, signifying life as a whole it may be the best song on the record. Everything is perfection; vocals, instruments, lyrics. While some may smirk at the sentiment everything is played straight. Rarely can a song capture a feeling, thought, or idea so well as here.

Overall Ladies Of The Canyon is a must have. Not only is it historically important and endlessly influential, it has some of the best writing and best music ever recorded. This would go on to be the bench mark for all folk music, for all female vocalists, and for all singer songwriters. Blue would follow this, an equally special album and perhaps even better due to the step forward in experimentation and the wider variety of music and influences she would display.

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Joni Mitchell: Song To A Seagull

Song To A Seagull

By 1968 Joni Mitchell had already written hits for other artists but decided that she wanted to write, record, and perform for herself. Song For A Seagull is her debut album and showcases her love of folk, classical, and jazz music. Her first four albums would be similarly influenced before she began to experiment and become alienated by various scenes, but during this stage of her career her music never sounded so pure. The album is mostly just her voice and guitar, the music accompanying parables about love, life, and despair, moving from pastoral fantasies to songs of yearning, from the energy and joy of night life to dreaming of freedom. It neither contains the hits of her next couple of albums, nor the musical variety of Blue and later albums, but remains today a near perfect folk album and a fascinating insight into the Sixties.

`I Had a King’ opens the album with a story of lost love, perhaps relating to her own early failed marriage. It introduces us to four main features of early Joni; sumptuous yet unconventional finger picking; intense, imaginative, introspective lyrics; songs which sound like stories; and of course her soaring voice which is more of an instrument than a backing orchestra of a hundred. Melodically it isn’t overly memorable and musically the tone seems quite dark and atmospheric.
`Michael From Mountains’ immediately sounds softer and lighter, and the song can be read as either a story of lost love, of a man who was everything to the woman; Someone who is giving, but whose mind and inner self will be forever unattainable for you. Alternately it sounds like a song from a mother to her son, the relationship protecting and giving life to both. Lyrically it is very sweet and poetic and can almost be seen as a precursor to Little Green.
`Night In The City’ has a jaunty, saloon like sound. There are interesting melodies and overlapping voices, pianos and strummed chords which give the song a highly energetic feel. It is about her love of night life, and has the sense of exposure to city for first time, being awakened to the sights, sounds, atmosphere for the first time and instantly being part of it all. It is probably the most upbeat song on the album and one which is a joy every listen.
`Marcie’ is my favourite song on the album, lyrically and musically perfect, both sides serving the other flawlessly. It is the soft story of lonely woman, yearning for more. Lyrically it is highly colourful and draws the listener into the very streets that the characters walk upon. Descriptive, not too metaphorical lending a sense of kinship it is one of her best lyrics. The small details of life, trivialities, days passing lift the song to more than mere commercial pop.
`Nathan La Franeer’ is a song retelling a meeting Joni had with a strange Taxi Driver, but made more interesting by showing us all the people and things she saw out the window. The lyrics are quite biting, speaking about anger, greed, and being an alien to a fellow human while sharing a common space. The hope for all people coming together, one love, and other hippy ideals of the time are clearly portrayed, but the other side is also shown. Marked by some odd guitar noises, it is not as memorable musically. It closes the first half of the album, a stepping stone to the more dreamlike second half of escape and freedom.
`Sistowbell Lane’ opens part two, a story of quaint suburbia, soft guitar and voice similar to Morning Morgantown. Again the music is light and dreamy mirroring the idyllic lyrics. It conveys the feeling that country is better, more desirable to a middle class city life with its useless luxuries.
`Dawntreader’ tells of a sea voyage but more widely as escape and freedom. Soft guitar with vocal surges stand out, vocals and guitar getting louder as the character comes closer to leaving. The lyrics are typically idyllic, like a friend whispering her dreams in your ear.
`Pirate Of Penance’ is an interesting song dealing with an unusual theme and featuring strange dueling vocals. It is a story of a pirate who comes to town on certain days, there is a murder, and the aftermath with quizzing between locals, and a Dancer. The vocals are sung quite quickly and frantically, possibly to echo the panic felt by the character and the frenzied nature of a mob. Musically the guitar takes a background seat to the vocals.
`Song To A Seagull’ is a sparse, mellow song to a seagull. The sea theme continues, although she compares features of the sea to features of the city. She sings of the loss of dreams, changing times, dreaming of the unattainable. The song suffers like a few others on the album by not standing out musically whilst having great lyrics.
`Cactus Tree’ closes the album as it opened- soft, melodic, lyrically diverse. The song speaks of men trying to reach the women they love, but they are free and cannot be reached, trapped in relationship. Still others are scared of falling love, scared of compromise, scared of giving up nothing and everything, possibly echoing Joni’s own feelings at the time. It is a good song to finish on and leaves the listener yearning for more.

The main flaw of the album as mentioned is that too many songs lack variation musically. Luckily the music is beautiful enough for this to be overlooked. This only really matters when you take Joni’s next albums into consideration which are just as beautiful, but also have more variation. Over the next few albums Joni would reach a type of perfection before leaving behind her folk roots and embarking on a jazzy, fused, experimental journey which would separate some fans who wished for more of the same as what is on offer here.

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