The critic must approach Joni Mitchell like a small boy visiting Disneyland for the first time - there is so much to see and marvel at, and so many ideas to wonder about. "Ladies of the Canyon" is filled with pictures, images and thoughts that make it both a delight and a puzzle. Some of the songs are exquisite, and you marvel at them; some of them are paradoxical, and you wonder about them.
Miss Mitchell wrote all 12 songs, and her own guitar or piano is the major accompaniment. As she did for her last album, "Clouds," Joni also painted the album cover, and the inside is filled with all the lyrics, in Joni's writing.
Three of the songs are amazingly good; lyrics, voice, melody, instruments tie together perfectly. After hearing "Morning Morgantown, you feel more like you've just seen a Rembrandt than like you've just heard another good song. The high, pealing voice makes "milk trucks making their morning rounds" significant and beautiful.
"Woodstock" is an unusual song, and Joni Mitchell, laying down weird, intriguing sentences as if they were common knowledge, does a better job here than Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
"Woodstock" should not be set to rock. Joni says "we are stardust/we are golden," but softens this with "I don't know who I am/but life is for learning."
Then there is the famous "Circle Game," a moving and desperate plea for years past: "We're captive on the carousel of time.../we can only look behind from where we came."
Religious allusions are frequent, and paradoxes are numerous. "Willy is my child, he is my father;" "Or just as one loves more and more/will one love less and less?"
"Big Yellow Taxi" talks about how "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." The commentary is amusing and makes its point - that "you don't know what you've got till it's gone" - but it is pale beside some of the other masterpieces. Not every song approaches "Circle Game" (although "Ladies of the Canyon" comes close), but not all are supposed to do so.
"Conversation," for example, shuns the mind dazzling images of nature and God, and deals plainly with a girl's comforting a boy who can't figure out his own girlfriend - much more-original than the too-common folk fare of "Don't leave me, I love ya baby, I need ya."
The best songs stand out because they move magically from verse to verse and completely enrapture the listener. The progression from childhood to 16-years-old to an elderly 20 in "Circle Game" is so magnificent that just reading the lyrics is its own art appreciation 'class."
Avoiding the politics and unimaginative complaining that make some folk and rock music seem so plain and pretentious, Joni Mitchell says what everyone knows about flowers, people and time, and says it in words we wish we had been able to think of.