I first wanted to buy Joni Mitchell's latest album while browsing through the Cellar record department. The lovely, almost ethereal, picture on the cover of the songstress sitting on a bed of moss on a high bluff on the banks of a wide river, dressed, as she is, in shades of green-blue suede, literally entralled [sic] me. It evoked memories and moods of quiet, peaceful moments of music and thought, and friends and times of awhile ago. (Inside, there is also a tender, tasteful photo of the lady standing nude, gazing, on wet rocks stepping out to sea.)
But nostalgia wasn't the only thing prompting a purchase out of my limited funds. The Sunday Times a few weeks ago reviewed the album along with one each by Yoko Ono and Dory Previn. With Carly Simon and Helen Reddy also very much in mind, the reviewer sought the woman context of these albums and especially extolled Ms. Mitchell for her success here.
It was particularly warranted. Success in any field for a woman has its obstacles. Perhaps no song in the album best elaborates on this theme than the last, Judgement Of The Moon And Stars (Ludwig's Tune), which through the metaphor of Beethoven's struggle agains his deafness, comments in a way that reaches home on every individual artist's, and person's for that matter, struggle to realize him- or herself.
Joni Mitchell has not been one of my very favorites. I always preferred Judy Collins' version of Both Sides Now, which is telling since Joni Mitchell wrote it. Her songs sometimes lack a rhythm I seek, relying mostly on her voice, which, while pure and strong, she uses in a way that becomes distinctly repetitious. She also drops words the way Arthur Rubinstein drops notes - enough to bother me yet not enough to ruin the effect of the song, the words of which are often very moving and poetic. To all her fanatic fans, I concede it's my problem, not hers.
A good example of the shortcomings that leave me dissatisfied is the album's opening song, Banquet. The message of too much want among too much plenty, too much greed, selfishenss [sic] and false dreams is very much there - I just wish it had a better vehicle.
Several of the songs are revealing glimpses of a woman's point of view on romance and the female role, particularly Woman Of Heart And Mind and Let The Wind Carry Me Others also touch on this with a focus on either the rock groupie or the female star - Blonde In The Bleachers and See You Sometime, a good Joni Mitchell song. The title song, For The Roses is also about this. It is the first of the album's best songs. It includes one of the most imaginative phrases on the record:
The caressing rev of motors
Finely tunes like fancy women
In thirties evening gowns.
It is also powerful in its effect, telling of spent love, glory and moments, and intriguing in its ambiguity about present and past, and the person singing and being sung about.
There are other songs on the albun [sic], including the humorous Barangrill, of which three deserve almost all the superlatives I can muster. The first thing you may notice about the album as you play it is the label - Asylum. This macabre name is borne out by many images, particularly in Lesson In Survival which I did not particularly like. But another song ties in with the label's name. It's called Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire and it is a gem. The images it raises of the lives of street and ghetto people, of being on the lam, of drugs, of poverty and flophouses, of despair and finally suicide are gripping.
But just as much to its credit, or rather Joni Mitchell's, is the music and the way it is sung. I suspect it's quite unlike anything Ms. Mitchell has done before. I recently read a 3-judge federal court opinion revamping Wisconsin's civil committment [sic] laws and for the first time really knew what the phrase "sweeping decision" referred to. Similarly, after listening to this song, you'll for the first time understand what it is to call something a haunting ballad. But that alone really does not describe the song musically. I am reminded of a torch song, except this song is not about love. The use of syncopation, accented on the chorus, combined with Ms. Mitchell's rich voice modulated into low moans as she sings of Lady Release is stunning. It is so good it's not depressing, perhaps also because tuning in a little to the despair in all of us is healthy, although as she says in another song:
When you dig down deep
You lose good sleep
And it makes you
The word is refreshing for Electricity and You Turn Me On I'm A Radio. Electricity delightfully deals with love and the world when Plus and Minus can not get together because of crossed or otherwise unworking circuits. The metaphor works, including presenting the alternative of simpler, pre-electronic age ways (for both love and the world) and ends with the comment: "She's not going to fix it up too easy."
You Turn Me On I'm A Radio may sound chauvinistic but it is not:
But you know I come when you whistle
When you're loving and kind
But if you've got too many doubts
If there's no good reception for me
Then tune me out, 'cause honey
Who needs the static
It hurts the head...
This song is quintessential Joni Mitchell and that is saying alot. It's the sort of song her voice and sense of rhythm and music playing are best suited for. Remember The Circle Game?
If you're driving into town
With a dark cloud above you
Dial in the number
Who's bound to love you
Oh honey, you turn me on
I'm a radio
I'm a country station
I'm a little bit corny
I'm a wildwood flower...
That she is.
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