In a vast, empty, wild beach a blonde girl sits in the breakers and watches the sea rolling endlessly into the sand. There are seagulls in this picture, and grey grass against the dunes. There is the fresh taste of salt in her mouth, wind in her face. Here is the ultimate freedom, the perfect moment where infinity stretches out, where time takes on its proper form and man his proper place.
But then as the eye travels across slap in the centre of this idyllic canvas is a massive pile. As obtrusive as though the painter had hated its peace and beauty and its calm and added his own morbid touch. The pile looks okay from the outside. It sparkles and smells sweet and looks like roses. But deep in its middle it's rotting. A pile of refuse of old motel signs, of lost souls, broken guitars cracked dreams, faded love letters, blunt needles and redundant talent.
This is the canvas that Joni Mitchell has used for her new album "For The Roses". And it is a picture she has drawn with a fine brush and a sensitive pen.
"For The Roses" is undoubtedly not only Joni's most important album to date, but her best. It sums up in poignant, emotive and brilliant images Joni's own position in the rock world - certainly not a unique one. The struggle within her which she spoke to me about earlier this year, is pin-pointed in this collection.
As far as Joni's concerned, "For The Roses" is a natural extension from "Blue", her last album. The reasons that in my mind it is a set so far superior to anything she's ever done, may stem from the fact that all the numbers here were written during one long year in the wilds of Canada with no outside distractions. Certainly the songs have a grit, an incredible depth about them that has never been so apparent in her work before.
She said, before she went in to cut them, that at one time she'd considered some songs too personal, too close to her life to ever present to the public. Although I can understand why (and at one point - for "Girl in The Bleachers" -the parallels run so close to the vein that she talks of herself in the second person) it would have been both a loss to her audience and to her own career if she hadn't got around to laying them down.
As it is. "For The Roses" is both an important and moving album. It is not full of doom and misery, self sympathetic flagellation or one iota of pretension. Joni looks at herself and her schizophrenic existence with a refreshing clarity, and on "You Turn Me On I'm A Radio" -the one moment of light relief, but still way above the rather fey substance of "Big Yellow Taxi" -can even see her behaviour in a rather tongue-in-cheek way with a lovely twist of lyric and clever usage of radioese: "call me at he station - the lines are open."
She is an artist who emerges here with an attitude of total realism. There is pain here but it is a commentary untempered by deprecation or self-pity. "For The Roses" is really a zenith to Joni Mitchell's career. It's her first album in two years and she approached it in a way that signalled a new path for her to tread. I think she had a feeling this one was going to be the best she's done, that the songs had lost both her previous cosiness and her plea for help, lost that rather light swansdown feeling, that icy breathlessness.
And so she has culled the best from her writing, brought to her work a new quality in her voice -giving it more pitch, more warmth and understanding, more striking power -and turned her artist's ear to the perfect blend of back-up musician. With woodwind and reeds in the hands of Tommy Scott, Wilton Felder on bass, Russ Kunkel on drums, Bobbye Hall Porter held tight on percussion, Stephen Stills supplying the entire rhythm section for "Blonde in The Bleachers", Graham Nash aiding on sleazy harmonica and the brilliant James Burton searing his way through the menacing, prowling drug number "Cold Blue Steel And Sweet Fire" - the pitch remains tight and the atmosphere captured in the hands of a lady who knew exactly what she wanted as a working base.
She uses her own piano work - more solid and demanding than ever to give her herself her private jumping off board. Using it to soar under her around that tripcord voice and colour every thing she does.
In a way "For The Roses" can be split into two themes, and both she has tasted to the full. The life of Joni the woman displayed so poignantly on "See You Sometime", "Electricity", "Blonde in The Bleachers", "Woman of Heart And Mind", "Let The Wind Carry Me", and "Lesson in Survival" ..."if you ever get the notion to he needed by me".
The life of Joni Mitchell, artist and rock and roll star, painted in red and black and acres of human frailty and loneliness on fine others. And it is these tracks - if any could be said to stand above the others - that really sear. "Cold Blue Steel", already mentioned with its sinister deceptively warm and comforting overtones. "Banquet" is about the game of life generally and in the music machine in particular...''some turn to Jesus some turn to heroin. Some get nothing, though there's plenty to spare." ''Barangrill" is a defined and brilliant track about life on the road when the artist feels like a mouse on a treadmill, memory becomes clouded and something deep within screams for release to be perhaps, just for a moment, someone ordinary and unpressured.
"Judgement of The Moon And Stars" is probably the track that is going to become the musical highpoint of the album - a beautiful, poetic, silver number dedicated to Beethoven that falls and builds with real classical complexity that lasts for over five minutes and will probably be compared in theme to McLean's "Vincent" though it really stretches itself far beyond.
But it's really the title track "For The Roses" that holds the album's power and bite. It is this song that encompasses Joni's outlook and understanding of the machine she and so many other artists are trapped in -the rotting pile on the beach. Written ostensibly for James Taylor it displays a careful, studied and yet emotional outlook on how people approach, use and fling away the artist and their work when material success falls off. "In the office sits a poet and he trembles as he sings. and he asks some guy to circulate his soul... okay, on your mark red ribbon runner!"
Joni's been a red ribbon runner - with 'For The Roses" she's a blue ribbon winner. She's captured the prize. Such a prize that in the end words are so much bunting for an album that superbly stands as its own witness to perfection.
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Added to Library on January 9, 2000. (8978)
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