FOR THE ROSES by Joni Mitchell
My dear S____________,
I am driven to quotation:
"If people were interested in art, you as an artist would receive wider recognition -
Love, for example, is deeper than flattery."
That's from e.e. cumming's introduction to The Enormous Room. Contrast with this, from the same place:
"I'm afraid you've never been hungry.
Don't be afraid."
Now, Joni Mitchell is open to criticism from many directions: that she's trying to pander to the public, that she's finding it difficult to keep up to former lyrical standards, that there is a limit to her originality (and she was already as original as she is going to get) and certainly a number of others.
From the struggling young artist perspective, however, it should be considered that: first, to continue in the same vein can be the easy way out, whether the tradition being followed is one you've created yourself or something you picked up off the streets; second, "the same standards always apply in the same way" is an attitude that has always undermined art; and third, an artist has a duty to experiment, even if it causes a loss of face, exile, or nothing at all.
I believe most would agree that Joni Mitchell has always been bold; she is not afraid of presenting something that is not likely to be accepted. Her first album was a totally different approach to what most people thought of as songwriting. I believe she has kept up this attitude.
Furthermore, one of her strongest traits is her recognition of what defines a song. And unlike most people, her definition is not limited by the existence of a catchy tune. She realizes, more than anyone I can think of, that a song is complex totality. It has word, it has music, it has arrangement, expression and many other, subtler elements. Many people think the words are incidental. Some, like Cohen and a lot of the French "poetic" songwriters, consider music mere background. Neither is true.
Lyrics and music interact, transforming each other into something neither can be by itself. Some dim perception of this undoubtedly lurks in the back of the mind of most songwriters, at least the ones who get anywhere at all. But the public demands so little of them and they think they're doing great when the music they produce is melodramatic or catchy - or simply well-advertised. They consider their work profound when it only acts as a mirror for the public's image of the truth.
With that thumbnail sketch of Things The Way I See Them in Mind, I will offer this evaluation of Joni Mitchell: She has been, and still is, the best songwriter I have ever heard. She has certain limits, to be sure, but she always attempts (and usually successfully) to overcome them.
She is aware of the mechanics of language and that, while alliteration and imagery can be good, they can also be a bore. The same holds true for music: mere complexity is not a measure of its worth. There's something in the total effect that has to be accounted for.
There are weaknesses in all of her albums. The first isn't as easy to listen to as the others. You might say that some other later songs aren't very deep. Well, neither is "Night in the City," "Big Yellow Taxi," or "I Don't Know Where I Stand." In fact, most of her songs aren't deep, they're just finely crafted and that's what makes them art. What you say takes precedence over how you say it.
You say Roses gave you the impression she was just putting music to words? Well, most people do the opposite. One can be as bad as the other but it doesn't have to be bad at all, as long as the result is a related whole and not a mere patchwork. There are melodies on the album which are often more subtle than what we're used to from her.
If you criticise the new songs, apply the same criteria to songs like "Blue Boy." I think you'll agree that, far from rejecting her past work, Joni Mitchell has simply refused to let it limit her. She's always just one step into the future.
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