Greetings, Glancers! You have been warned. But now it’s too late to turn back, and before you start whacking that back button and trying to get out let me tell you that if you do, there will be an unholy stain on your favourite rug next time you look. You’re stuck with me. Deal with it.
I came around to Joni Mitchell quite late. Late teens. I knew some of her songs when I was a cub – namely Big Yellow Taxi and The Circle Game. One of my best friends was a massive fan and he was living and working in a (basically) psych hospital/home and I would come and stay with him sometimes and get up to all sorts of shenanigans. He essentially had a personnel living quarters/ward to himself which reminded me of the army barracks I used to… well, that’s another story. It had the same feeling – long corridors, common rooms, dimly lit kitchen areas, hefty double doors and fire escapes, and bedrooms which seemed like minor improvements on prison cells. To have all this to yourself was like living in your own castle so naturally we would stay up till dawn watching DVDs, playing guitar, getting drunk, and messing around the halls on the various pieces of cleaning and physical training equipment. I have fond memories of walking around the building at 4.00 am while Fleetwood Mac was blaring through the speakers, before going outside as the sun was coming up and talking to some random ‘inmate’ who happened to be having a smoke (the whole complex was split into different areas from the violent criminally insane section which had its own guards and walls, to the more harmless dementia and addict patients, and many were free to roam as they pleased as far as I could tell).
Back to Joni – my friend would stick on Joni albums and they would be perfect for background chill music, but I’ve never been the sort of person who can ‘tolerate’ music as background sounds. What I mean by that is, if a song is on, I can’t help but listen to it. I focus on it, I zoom in on the instruments and the lyrics and the writing and end up engaging with it more than whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing. Having a similar taste in music to me anyway, and frequently introducing each other to new bands, I latched on to Joni pretty quickly. With songs like A Case Of You – how can you not? It remains one of the most sweet, most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.
My wife hates it – she doesn’t do high pitched voices and she can’t listen to anything by Joni without cringing. I get it, even in her most commercial songs, I understand why some people won’t like her voice. She hits some incredibly high notes and at times comes close to being shrill, but by contrast that’s what I love in a vocalist. I like a voice to be strained until breaking point – I don’t usually do smooth vocals, listening to someone like Michael Buble is like having an apple pushed into my ear. The thing that is easy to miss when you dislike her voice is just how perfectly controlled it is – remember this song is little more than her vocal and her Dulcimer, but she performs it like a duet, her voice as the lead instrument and the guitar as a backup. Fans will know that she does this on a lot of her albums, but I think she does it best on her first three or four albums. Those little ascending scale runs she does, the personality on certain inflections, the incredible resilient vibrato, it all lends a unique power and quality that I don’t think any other vocalist has ever matched. Joni has always had that power of commanding a song with a vocal performance meaning that her version of whatever song it is invariably sounds the best.
Which brings me to cover versions. According to Wikipedia, the song has had over 300 official cover recordings. I haven’t heard many of those, and the only one which jumps out at me is the one by Tori Amos – another artist who was frequently played during those debauched nights in the halls – but the likes of Prince, KD Lang, and Michelle Branch have covered it too, and a brief search in Youtube will yield hundreds of results by budding and wannabee singers, songwriters, pop stars all bringing their own voice and personality to it. The song has appeared in multiple movies and TV shows over the decades. It’s a song which has clearly spoken on a deeply personal level to millions of people since it’s debut in 1971 on Blue. What is it then which has made it so universally loved for so long? That’s one of the key questions of music, or art as a whole – how and why something endures. At its most simple, it is because the song resonates emotionally, and love and loss are human facets which have always been and will always be.
At a deeper level, that voice is at once haunting, sweet, reminds of what has been seen as a more ideal time, and somehow captures the listener in their own personal point in time. For whatever reason, people find this song exactly when they need to and years later upon hearing the song it transports you back to those days – as exemplified in my writing above. It’s the inherently catchy melody – a simple chorus switched up by the vocals each time, and it’s the timeless writing. You can mash up the song anyway you like, add a bunch of other instruments, soup it up in the studio, but you can’t really strip it down any further than how it is in its original, purest form. It’s like a newborn in its perfection – sure some people are going to be put off by it and not know what to do when handed it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s perfect. The lyrics are poetic without being obtuse, and universal without being cliche ridden – the truest sign of a great songwriter who can relate feelings we’ve all felt in ways and with words we all understand, but which are entirely personal to the person who wrote them.
Between Joni’s soaring highs and James Taylor’s heartbreaking acoustic, the sparse arrangement doesn’t require any embellishing. I love songs which throw everything at the wall and succeed, and I equally love songs which strut up to a stool on a stage, sit down, and just start playing with utmost confidence saying ‘here I am, you’re going to love me’ like A Case Of You does. There isn’t a single millisecond of bullshit in the entire thing, and it lays the performer and the listener bare. Even as simple and sparse as the song is, it still throws in surprises such as the Canadian National Anthem interlude and the interchange between childlike pain and fear and Godly falsetto. The song may not be the most instrumentally complex in the world, but its difficulty comes in playing it without breaking down – it’s a song you can’t restrain your feelings from, those feelings are transported into you fingers and your voice, and it’s very easy to collapse under the emotional weight of it all.
With all of this praise and with its enduring popularity, you would expect the song to have been a hit. The song was never released as a single, its popularity coming from the acclaim and success of the album Blue which went Platinum in the US and double Platinum in the UK. Each new generation of listeners and artists finds the album and finds this song among its many classics, and they share it far and wide, and so the song continues to connect and find new ears and hearts. Have you heard it? If not, there’s no better time like the present. Click any of the links I’ve popped in throughout this post – they all take you to the same album version video on Youtube and if you like what you hear, I highly recommend you buy Blue from wherever you can get it. It’s one of my favourite albums of all time and features a tonne of songs just as beautiful and powerful as A Case Of You. If you don’t like it… you are a very odd person.
Let us know in the comments what you think of A Case Of You!