This article originally appeared in the first edition of the Ultimate Music Guide published on May 19, 2017.
By the time Joni Mitchell released Clouds, in May 1969, the track whose chorus gave the album its name - "Both Sides, Now" - had already been recorded by more than a dozen other artists, with further renditions on the horizon. Its ubiquity was understandable: not only is it a remarkable song but, as Mitchell revealed on March 12, 1967, in an interview for Gene Shay's Folklore Program, "I've been driving everybody crazy by playing it twice and three times a night." She'd only written it "a few days earlier", she added, but within months Judy Collins had cut a version for her Wildflowers album, which, released as a single a year later, took the song into the American Top 10. Frank Sinatra adopted it too, and Camelot star Robert Goulet, while Claudine Longet and Marie Laforet delivered French interpretations. Even Leonard Nimoy took an affectionate, if faltering, crack at it for 1968's The Way I Feel, and its allure has apparently never waned. Including Dexys' cover last year, Mitchell's website currently states that it's been recorded an astonishing 1,480+ times. A standard before Mitchell even put it to tape herself, "Both Sides, Now" is, one might argue, indestructible.
The song, she told Gene Shay during that Folklore Program interview, was inspired by-and written before she even finished reading- Saul Bellow's Henderson The Rain King. "There's a line in it tha I especially got hung up on," she confided, "that was about when he [Henderson] was flying to Africa and searching for something. He said that in an age when people could look up and down at clouds, they shouldn't be afraid to die. And so I got this idea: 'from both sides now'." It's an idea that, broadly speaking, she applied to the album as a whole. Almost all of Clouds' 10 tracks are distinguished by Mitchell's ability to perceive things from more than one perspective, and this sense of equilibrium, conspicuous in both her serenity and lyrical poise, is vital to the album's enduring appeal.
It's unsurprising that critics have often alluded to Mitchell's offerings as songs of innocence and experience. Unlike William Blake, however, Mitchell seems unable to separate these two mindsets. Twenty five when the album was released, she appears both naive and world-weary; forced, on "I Don't Know Where I Stand", to acknowledge the complexities and doubts new love brings while celebrating its dopamine-fuelled rush. "Picked up a pencil and wrote 'I love you' in my finest hand", she sings, "Wanted to send it, but I don't know where I stand". Like the "varnished weeds in window jars" and "roses dipped in sealing wax" that she describes on the meditative, minor-key "Tin Angel", she's frozen in a state of youthful purity. Unlike them, though, she's susceptible to a wisdom that grows with age. In fact, she even spells this out towards the end of the album: "Songs to ageing children come/Ageing children, I am one".
Clouds articulates the dizzying confusion that accompanies the onset of adulthood, when you're expected to shoulder responsibilities, but are still coming to terms with your identity. Mitchell had been forced to grow up fast in the years since she'd left home in 1965, swapping cities -including Toronto, Detroit and New York- and partners until, in 1967, at the behest of her new lover, David Crosby, she reached Los Angeles, where the Toronto department store in which she'd once worked was swiftly forgotten. Clouds is consequently saturated -in both its themes and the moods conjured up by its artful, unanticipated chord changes - with a vigorous idealism and a grounding realism. She'd come a long way in a relatively short time from her hometown of Saskatoon.
Clouds, however, reveals little of this frantic activity. Partially this is because some of its songs were long established in her catalogue, if unrecorded by Mitchell: besides "Both Sides, Now"'s multiple incarnations, "Chelsea Morning" had already been covered by both Jennifer Warnes and Dave Van Ronk, and "I Don't Know Where I Stand" and "Chelsea Morning" were included on Fairport Convention's 1968 self-titled debut after Joe Boyd passed them demos. The latter, furthermore, referred back to 1967 and Mitchell's New York bedroom's "yellow curtains", its "crimson crystal beads", and the rainbow projected on the wall through stained glass salvaged years earlier from a home for unwed mothers. But, more importantly, Mitchell's composure lies at the album's very heart: these songs are intricately constructed, full of carefully considered observations and confessions, and accompanied almost exclusively by only a single acoustic guitar, with any occasional overdubs largely restricted to Mitchell's additional harmonies. Whatever upheavals she's encountered are downplayed. Sidestepping drama in favour of subtle revelations, Clouds is instead as self-assured as it is candid, as calmly cynical as it is sentimental.
It had taken a while for Mitchell's approach to lift her above the scrum of folk singers whose recent omnipresence had initially handicapped her search for a deal. Even after manager Elliot Roberts had solved this problem with a Reprise Records contract, Mitchell had to battle prevailing attitudes in order to overcome the "girl singer" tag. In the summer of 1968, Crawdaddy's Paul Williams -even though he was ostensibly praising Song To A Seagull-patronisingly asserted that, "Young women think and speak on a fairly simple level, but feel on a deeply complex one, before asking, "Have you ever noticed how much more important is the sound of a woman's voice than what she says with it?"
Mitchell, however, contradicted this, overcoming prejudices by pairing the fluidity of her voice with the ingenious expression of knotted emotions. "I was really a folksinger up until 1965," she told Barney Hoskyns, "but once I crossed the border, I began to write. My songs began to be, like, playlets or soliloquies. My voice even changed- I no longer was imitative of the folk style, really. I was just a girl with a guitar that made it look that way." Untrained as either a singer or guitarist, Mitchell assimilated influences from beyond the genre- her work's suitability for stylistically varied interpretations confirms this - and her lyrics, though full of colourful imagery like "Crickets call, courting their ladies in star-dappled green"("I Don't Know Where I Stand"), transcended and sometimes even subverted contemporary hippie tendencies.
"Tin Angel", the album's opening track - also covered, alongside "Urge For Going" (a future B-side to "You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio"), by Tom Rush for the previous year's The Circle Game (itself a Mitchell composition that would later surface on Ladies Of The Canyon)- swiftly establishes this technique. Beginning with a gently plucked guitar line and rippling chords, Mitchell goes on, elegiacally, to list "reflections of love's memories": "Tarnished beads on tapestries", "Valentines and maple leaves/Tucked into a paperback". But her joy in finding "someone to love today" is carefully undermined: "Dark with darker moods is he/Not a golden prince who's come/ Through columbines and wizardry/To talk of castles in the sun". Similarly, "Both Sides, Now"'s memorable sketches of the skies above her - "Rows and flows of angel hair/ And ice-cream castles in the air" - are soon transformed into something more negative: "But now they only block the sun/ They rain and snow on everyone".
On "I Don't Know Where I Stand", too, she appears to mock her romantic inclinations, contrasting the naive pleasures of a "sunny day, braiding wild flowers and leaves in my hair" with a more sceptical acceptance of reality: "Feeling too foolish and strange to say the words that I had planned/I guess it's too early". Indeed, while Clouds overflows with references to pleasures traditionally-condescendingly - thought of as feminine, they're part of a more sophisticated picture that relishes earthy, sensual desires and is tolerant of betrayals. This wasn't entirely new for Mitchell, as Song To A Seagull attests, but throughout Clouds, she extends this privilege even further, treating her listener as a confidante, inviting empathy while discreetly draping a poetic veil over the minutiae.
Two songs in particular address a love affair with a man whose identity was later confirmed by Judy Collins in her 2011 autobiography, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes. "Joni wrote 'That Song AboutThe Midway' about Leonard (Cohen)," she revealed, "or so she says. Sounds right: the festival, the guy, the jewel in the ear." Mitchell had met Cohen at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival, and he not only made a significant impression, but also provoked one of her most notable similes: "You stood out like a ruby in a black man's ear". The relationship was short lived, possibly because, as Mitchell hints, Cohen proved to be less than faithful: "You were betting on some lover/You were shaking up the dice/And I thought I saw you cheating once or twice". "The Gallery", too, appears inspired by Cohen's infidelity, a suggestion given further credence by both the Cohen-esque language employed by her protagonist - "Lady, please love me now, I am dead" - and her introduction to the song during a 1970 BBC In Concert performance: "Artists are connoisseurs of beauty, and I always like to say that this is a song about a man who spent a lot of time riding around 'connoisseuring' all those beauties." As she told Cameron Crowe in 1979, "I have a tendency to confront my relationships much more often than people would care." What's most striking about both songs, however, is how graceful her voice remains, even when, in "The Gallery", she sweetly but mischievously divulges how "I see that now it's Josephine/ Who cannot be without you". Tenderness, in fact, permeates Clouds, whether she's exploring her newfound lower register on the contemplative but quietly optimistic "Tin Angel", or hitting her highest notes at the end of "Roses Blue", in which she slowly, expertly, unfurls a tale of a woman who's allowed her obsession with the occult to destroy friendships. It's there, as well, on "Songs To Aging Children Come", in which she trills and coos like a songbird, and in her playing, too, the strings of her guitars often seemingly caressed rather than strummed.
On "Chelsea Morning", she even spurns its lower notes, emphasising the lyrics' carefree, hopeful sentiment, while, on "The Fiddle And The Drum", she puts her instrument down altogether, forcing us to focus entirely on its forlorn melody and a bold, reasoned message of peace. "Johnny, my dear friend", she asks, "What time is this/ To trade the handshake for the fist?" before she extends similar queries to America as a whole. To some, its sacrifice of the transparently personal for the bluntly political made it less effective than the songs that surrounded it. Geoffrey Cannon, writing in The Guardian in June 1969, declared that "'The Fiddle And The Drum' is her only failure, because its metaphors don't have her living in them." But such criticism was to overlook the affection expressed for its protagonist -and, by extension, the US- in lines like "We can remember/All the good things you are". It also neglected to acknowledge that its sentiment, sadly, might remain pertinent even today.
In the end, it's hard to pinpoint one single quality that makes Clouds so impressive Its content perfectly matches its delivery, the delight of language employed with such precision ideally suited to music even more lively. It earned Mitchell a 1970 Grammy for Best Folk Performance, but that was a backhanded compliment: Clouds' reach extended far beyond any specialist category. It confirmed Mitchell not only as a writer of unusually versatile songs open to endless reinvention - her website documents a total of 1,378+ recordings of Clouds' tracks by other artists - but as a performer of exquisite sensitivity able to shed light on our passions and doubts. Like the sun that dappled her apartment walls on that famed Chelsea morning, its music "poured in like butterscotch/And stuck to all my senses".
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