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On ‘For The Roses’ 50 years ago Print-ready version

In 1972, Joni Mitchell traded the hubbub of the big city for nature’s quiet solitude. There, she wrote an album of unparalleled earthy wonder, For the Roses.

by Matt McKinzie
PopMatters
November 14, 2022

For Joni Mitchell fans, 2022 has been a big year. In July, the legendary artist stunned music lovers worldwide when she performed at the Newport Folk Festival with Brandi Carlile and a group of musician friends. It was the first time Mitchell played at the venue since 1969 and the first time she'd performed on any stage since a brain aneurysm nearly took her life in 2015.

That aneurysm, which forced Mitchell to learn to walk and talk again, seemed to confirm the end of her performing career - from which she'd already been retired for over two decades. A massive Mitchell fan myself, I'd made peace with the fact that I'd probably never get to see her in concert.

That all changed on 21 October 2022 when Brandi Carlile announced that Mitchell would headline a show at the Gorge Amphitheater in Washington state on 10 June 2023 as part of a two-night engagement titled "Echoes Through the Canyon". After 23 years of relative seclusion (with an ad hoc performance here and there), Joni Mitchell was back on the road.

The Mitchell "renaissance" of 2022 hasn't come out of thin air. Earlier this year the music icon was named MusiCares Person of the Year for the Grammy Awards. That accolade followed the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2021, where she was recognized for her incalculable contributions to the performing arts alongside Bette Midler, Berry Gordy, Justino Díaz, and Lorne Michaels. But Mitchell's comeback period really kicked off in September 2020 with the arrival of the Joni Mitchell Archives, an extensive and ongoing collaboration with Rhino Records to put out previously unreleased material in her collection in addition to definitive reissues of her studio albums.

Remastered editions of her first four LPs - 1968's Song to a Seagull, 1969's Clouds, 1970's Ladies of the Canyon, and 1971's Blue - have been made available in a box set entitled The Reprise Albums (1968 - 1971). That release featured a supplemental essay by Brandi Carlile and arrived after a collection of rare home tapes and live recordings from her time working the coffeehouse circuit as an unknown folkie called the Early Years (1963 - 1967). Demos, live recordings, outtakes, and ephemera from the period of her first four albums' creation titled The Reprise Years (1968 - 1971) corresponded with the Reprise Albums box set.

September 2022 brought the Archives' second box set of remastered LPs, The Asylum Albums (1972 - 1975). This latest collection features spruced-up re-releases of 1972's For the Roses, 1974's Court and Spark, 1974's live double album Miles of Aisles, and 1975's The Hissing of Summer Lawns. The first album in the set, and Mitchell's fifth overall, turns 50 this month.

For the Roses was successful when it came out, ascending to No. 11 on the Billboard 200 in November 1972 and later earning a spot in the Library of Congress's National Recording Registry. Still, it hardly gets classic rock radio airplay and remains (in the astute words of Uncut Magazine's Sharon O'Connell) "widely acknowledged as a transitional record... it falls between the emotional transparency of 1971's Blue and 1974's Court and Spark."

Early albums like Clouds and Ladies of the Canyon remain iconic for featuring standards like "Both Sides Now", "Big Yellow Taxi", "Woodstock" and "The Circle Game". Meanwhile, Blue and Court and Spark are longtime critical favorites and (as of 2022) the biggest sellers of Mitchell's career. Rolling Stone selected both albums for its 500 Greatest Albums list in its first iteration in 2003. Blue even rose from No. 30 to No. 3 in the 2020 revision - ranked behind only the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (1966) and Marvin Gaye's What's Going On (1971) as the greatest album of all time.

That ranking comes as no surprise. Nowadays Blue is widely regarded as the blueprint (pun intended) for the "confessional singer-songwriter album" and according to Pitchfork's Jessica Hopper it's "the most gutting break-up album ever made". As with contemporaneous releases like Carole King's Tapestry (also 1971) and Carly Simon's No Secrets (1972), the intimate style and subject matter of Mitchell's fourth LP signaled a new era for women performers in American music - one where it became acceptable (and commercially viable) for female artists to write and record songs about their private lives.

It's no secret that Mitchell's romantic involvements with Graham Nash, Leonard Cohen, and James Taylor inspired tracks from Blue like "My Old Man", "A Case of You", "The Last Time I Saw Richard", and "This Flight Tonight". Her lyrics on that record in particular - which combined diaristic precision and specificity with enough creative liberty and abstraction to make her personal experiences feel universal - were groundbreaking for the time, especially for a woman artist.

As Mitchell noted in the 2003 American Masters documentary Joni Mitchell, A Woman of Heart and Mind:

I loved the beautiful melodies which belonged to the crooner era, but... there wasn't room for much poetic description... I like the more storytelling quality of Dylan's work... It was the idea of the personal narrative, [where] he would speak as if to one person in a song... and his influence was to personalize my work: 'I feel this for you, or from you, or because of you'... [But] the thing that I was reluctant to let go of was the melodic, harmonic sense. Whereas Dylan you could speak in paragraphs, but it was for the sacrifice of music. You get the plateaus upon which to speak. So it was my job to distill a hybrid that allowed for a certain amount of melodic movement... but with a certain amount of plateaus in order to make the longer statement, to be able to say more.

Lyrics like "I am on a lonely road and I am traveling / Looking for something, what can it be? / I hate you some, I hate you some / I love you some / I love you when I forget about me" from Blue's opener "All I Want" convey an emotional and poetic complexity - and most notably, a feminine sensibility - scarce in pop music prior to the early 1970s and the rise of second-wave feminism. As Pitchfork's Hopper noted in a retrospective review of Mitchell's first ten albums: "In the 1960s and '70s, [she] was Mary Magdalene to Dylan's folk-rock messiah, making music that was bittersweet and relatable, carrying what Dylan begat even further."

Granted, Mitchell led the charge in some ways and let her compeers charge ahead in others. While her debut album Song to a Seagull (1968) preceded Carole King's debut Writer (1970) by two years and beat Carly Simon to the punch (who debuted as a solo artist with 1971's Carly Simon) by three, Mitchell's singles didn't chart as well as those two artists.

King's "It's Too Late" and "So Far Away" and Simon's "Anticipation" and "You're So Vain" soared up the Billboard Hot 100 from 1971-1972. But Mitchell's "Carey" - Blue's catchy lead single that nonetheless lacked the buttery pop textures typical of early 1970s mainstream radio - stalled at No. 93. Likewise, now-beloved songs from her past albums (namely "Both Sides Now" and "Woodstock") were only well-known in the late 1960s because major pop and rock acts like Judy Collins and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young covered them... not because Mitchell's own recordings were hits.

Her luck on the charts improved in 1972. "You Turn Me on I'm a Radio" - the lead single from For the Roses - peaked at No. 25 and fulfilled Asylum CEO David Geffen's request that Mitchell churn out a radio hit.

Aloof to commercial considerations, Mitchell wrote "You Turn Me on I'm a Radio" ironically, with cheeky references to "transistors", "corny country stations" and "broadcasting towers" in its lyrics. But this "peculiar, warped sense of humor" (as Mitchell herself described it) didn't prevent the single from reaching a wide audience. Its catchy hook and rich production were just too good. Without necessarily intending it to, "You Turn Me on I'm a Radio" put Mitchell on mainstream airwaves and made her a bona fide pop star.

For the Roses as a whole is a significant entry in Mitchell's discography for this reason. While retaining the lyrical depth and poignancy of Blue, it departs from that album's spare instrumentals with the multilayered sound - an infectious (if at times indefinable) amalgamation of folk, rock, and jazz idioms - that would eventually earn the artist her widest audience on Court and Spark.

Recorded with Tom Scott and the L.A. Express as her backing band, that album heard Mitchell mix velvety horns, crisp percussion, sunny guitars, and pristine pop shimmer into a sublime sonic cocktail for FM radio. Described as a "perfectly mixed tequila sunrise" as compared to Blue's "cool drink of pure water" by the Washington Post's Ann Hornaday, Court and Spark nabbed four nominations at the 1974 Grammy Awards (including a win for Mitchell and Scott's epic arrangement on the song "Down To You") and went double platinum.

With its second single "Help Me" hitting No. 7 on the Hot 100 (her highest entry on the chart to date), Court and Spark marked Mitchell's apotheosis as a pop megastar. But For the Roses was the album that crowned her with that lofty title, considering its lead single was the first song recorded and released under Mitchell's own name actually to break into the Top 40.

Yet despite catalyzing a new era (lyrically, musically, and commercially) in her career, Mitchell's fifth LP is usually tagged as the middling way station between her two best-known works. This designation poses questions - is For the Roses a richer, darker Blue? A sparser, folkier Court and Spark? - that threaten to diminish the album's potential as a consummate and standalone piece worthy of its own assessment.

On the occasion of its unexpected induction into the National Recording Registry in 2007, music critic and Mitchell biographer David Yaffe wrote:

None of the songs on For the Roses are as well-loved or even well-known like the songs on Blue... In the title track of Blue, Mitchell said that even if hell wasn't 'the hippest way to go', she still wanted to 'look around' it. In "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" [from For the Roses], she goes there, 'down, down the dark ladder'. That song - flanked by Tom Scott on alto saxophone - was a preview for the L.A. Express accompaniment that was to follow on the commercial breakthrough of 'Court and Spark', but she wasn't there yet.

Likewise, a September 2022 Mojo magazine review of the recently released Asylum Albums box set referred to For the Roses as "Blue II" with the observation that the album "has since become undervalued in her catalogue... 'Lesson in Survival' sounds very close to 'The Last Time I Saw Richard' [from Blue]."

These assessments posit For the Roses as an inconspicuous entry in Mitchell's discography - a minor song cycle only worth acknowledging when accompanied or contextualized by the now legendary albums that bookend it. In her journey from stripped-down folk to jazz-tinged pop, Blue is the starting point, Court and Spark is the destination, and For the Roses is regarded as a mere pit stop.

But 50 years later and following the Covid-era boom of "woodsy" folk-pop albums like Taylor Swift's folklore (2020) and Laura Marling's Song for Our Daughter (2020), For the Roses proves a fully-realized and prophetic work, the spiritual godmother to those sylvan records. Mitchell's folk-pop-jazz mélange on her fifth album conjures a distinctly forestial sound and aesthetic unlike anything else in her catalog, a sound and aesthetic still echoed in popular music (by artists like Swift and Marling) a half-century on.

It's also echoed in a nature-centric lifestyle trend like "cottagecore", which critics like W Magazine's Kyle Muzenrieder associate with the look and feel of Swift's folklore in particular. Characterized by "foraged mushrooms, open meadows, freshly picked flowers [and] homegrown produce", cottagecore (according to NPR's Emma Bowman) proved especially popular during the Covid-19 lockdown as it offered "a wholesome, back-to-basics escape [at] a time when many fe[lt] trapped and overwhelmed". Kate Reggev of Architectural Digest further characterizes cottagecore as a way of life "harmonious with nature" and "in part a reaction against capitalism and our increasing time spent in front of a screen, but also related to ongoing interests in wellness and sustainability".

Far from the "dark cafes" of Blue and the "Malibu waves" of Court and Spark, Mitchell noted in a 2013 interview with the CBC that she fled Los Angeles after releasing Blue and, in what some might consider an act of "proto-cottagecore" escapism, "retreated into the B.C. wilderness" to write most of the material that would appear on For the Roses off-the-grid. She elaborated on her exodus from the big city to the forests of her home country in the American Masters documentary:

My individual, psychological descent coincided, ironically, with my ascent into the public eye. They were putting me on a pedestal and I was wobbling... So I isolated myself and I made my attempt to get 'back to the garden'. I moved up into the Canadian back bush to a small sanctuary where I could be alone, lived with kerosene, [and] stayed away from electricity for about a year. I turned to nature. I was going down and with that came a tremendous sense of knowing nothing. Western psychology might call it a nervous breakdown but in certain cultures they call it a shamanic conversion. Depression can be the sand that makes the pearl. Most of my best work came out of it... There is a possibility, in that mire, of an epiphany.

Whatever epiphany Mitchell had in the Canadian wilds superseded mere personal introspection. Just as folklore heard Taylor Swift (in the words of Consequence's Katie Moulton) "interrogate [her] self-mythologizing and turn her gaze outward", For the Roses hears Mitchell's writing take on a POV broader than the "I" voice of her earlier records.

On the album's opener "Banquet" Mitchell waxes sociological: "Come to the dinner gong / the table is laden high... some get the gravy / and some get the gristle / some get the marrow bone / and some get nothing / though there's plenty to spare". An anticapitalist meditation on socioeconomic disparity, Mitchell notes that some of her peers "turn to Jesus / and some turn to heroin... some watch their kids grow up / some watch their stocks and bonds / waiting for that big deal / American Dream".

Mitchell takes her share "down by the sea" but she doesn't turn a blind eye to injustice. The final verse finds her asking: "Who let the greedy in? / And who left the needy out? / Who made this salty soup? / Tell him we're very hungry now / For a sweeter fare". Through it all, earthy imagery grounds her societal musings with mentions of "seagulls and sunshine", "logs and sails", and "dogs and tugs and summertime".

Mitchell trades Blue's inward-looking fragility for outward-looking clarity in For the Roses, even when the songs concern the intimate agonies of her personal life. The second track, "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire", allegedly chronicles her ex-lover James Taylor's debilitating heroin addiction. But Mitchell manages to transfigure Taylor's individual experience into a broader - and foreboding - examination of the opioid crisis of the early '1970s. Lyrics like "Pawn shops crisscrossed and padlocked / Corridors spit on prayers and pleas", "Red water in the bathroom sink / Fever in the scum brown bowl", and "Concrete concentration camp / Bashing in veins for peace" evoke images from gritty drug abuse movies like Dusty and Sweets McGee and The Panic In Needle Park (both released in 1971).

There's a mythic proclivity to her lyrics here. In the title track of Blue (also purportedly about Taylor's addiction) Mitchell pointedly calls out "acid, booze, and ass" and "needles, guns, and grass". But in "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" she describes the deepest depths of his dependency as "Lady Release" - an imagined temptress beckoning him "down the dark ladder" and into the underworld of addiction. All the while, Tom Scott's seductive sax, and James Burton's evocative electric guitar creep through Mitchell's feverish harmonizing vocals and acoustic strumming like smog slithering through forest trees.

"Barangrill" presents a triptych of characters: a waitress whose "mind's on her boyfriend and eggs over-easy", a truck driver who's a "slave", and a gas station attendant who "sings 'Merry Christmas' for you just like Nat King Cole". Mitchell admits that "some longing gets filled" while getting "lost in the moment" with these people, all of whom she encounters en route to a location that's less a physical place than an idea or state of mind.

"Barangrill" isn't so much a playful portmanteau as it is an obfuscation of the words "bar and grill", for the specific bar-and-grill to which Mitchell is headed proves irrelevant. It's all about the laborers she meets on her journey there. After Laurel Canyon's hedonistic pageantry of fame and celebrity, Mitchell retreated to her Canadian roots and brought herself down to earth figuratively and literally. On the album's third number, a deeper inquiry into the lives and personalities of the everyday people that surrounded her reifies that notable life shift.

Of course, Mitchell hadn't shut herself out of showbiz completely - an admission she makes on the album's title track. While she resents being "seen on giant screens / and at parties for the press / and for people who have slices of you from the company", she relents in the next verse: "I guess I seem ungrateful with my teeth sunk in the hand / that brings me things I really can't give up just yet".

Fortunately, the lure of the biz doesn't completely ruin her Thoreauvian outlook. Mitchell likens an audience's applause to the late-night wind, to the sound of "arbutus rustling" and "bumping logs" while the moon sweeps down "black water like an empty spotlight". Even the uber-industrial L.A. music scene materializes in nature.

Broader meditations on relationships and the human condition like "Lesson in Survival" are replete with pastoral imagery - everything from "campers in the kitchen" and "a river flowing" to "the sun going down", "green water in motion", and "fresh salmon frying and the tide rolling in". On the final track, "Judgment of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune)", Mitchell mentions "a tree / a bridge / a river", "lightning", and a "forest fire". And in "Electricity", where the "leaves fall / and the pond over-ices", Mitchell admits that life off-the-grid - amid the sociopolitical chaos that defined the early '70s (e.g. the Nixon administration, the Vietnam War) - is "peaceful / with a good dog and some trees / out of touch with the breakdown of this century". (Fascinating how Swift and Marling would record folklore and Song for Our Daughter during Covid-19, or the breakdown of this century).

Songs exude the wilderness aurally even if some of their lyrics don't directly reference it. Tom Scott's woodwinds and reeds drift through Mitchell's compositions like campfire smoke, while each impassioned strum and finger-pick on Mitchell's own guitar pierces the eardrums like an ax chopping through timber.

That Mitchell wrote For the Roses while living in the B.C. forest - and imbued her compositions with the textures of that environment - is significant from a feminist standpoint. Correlated with the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s was the "back to the land" movement, which saw young people reject American capitalism and conformity by way of a "back to basics" lifestyle. Like many who sought comfort and escapism during Covid-19 via "cottagecore" living, "back to the land" hippies typically retreated to forests or farmland, grew their own food, avoided modern technology, and even formed relationships and communities that eschewed traditional monogamy and nuclear family structures.

As described by Jessica Louise Lynn in her 2013 Southern Illinois University dissertation "Country Women: Back-to-the-Land Feminism and Radical Feminist Praxis in the Women's Liberation Movement":

Hippies' vision of change... included a radical politics of 'dropping out'... They desired enlightenment, community, and believed in love... Inspired in part by the burgeoning environmental movement, many... left urban areas, bought (or squatted on) cheap land, and attempted to homestead like pioneers of the past. By building cabins, digging wells for water, gardening, and raising animals for meat and dairy, homesteaders experimented with communal living. Many hoped that this movement would foster environmental change, recapture a lost human connection with nature, and inspire peace and real community in a new, authentic society.

Of course, sexism infected the "back to the land" movement like it did the counterculture. Lynn admits that "women encountered extreme divisions of labor based on gender roles, the fallacy of 'free love' left them pregnant and often times single, while they were ostracized from big decision-making roles and forced to 'choose' between caregiving roles (cooking, cleaning, child-rearing) or starvation and cold."

Eventually, the burgeoning feminist movement would address the sexist faults of the back-to-the-landers the same way it addressed sexism within the broader counterculture. Lynn writes that "hippie" women "recognized these... hypocrisies - indeed they lived it daily - and took action to rectify their situations." Women-only communes emerged as a result, though Lynn notes the paucity of literature on these communities (with most "back to the land" articles only mentioning all-women communes in their footnotes).

While Mitchell didn't live in a women-only commune in British Columbia during the writing of For the Roses, she certainly led an autonomous existence, not unlike women who did. Lynn notes that "back to the land" women in the 1960s and 1970s "learned how to trust their own strength and power" by "challenging gender roles and expectations by learning work traditionally thought of as male-oriented or masculine" (like building homes, maintaining woodpiles, and obtaining water) and "by creating alternatives to consumerism through self-sufficiency". In other words - and despite Mitchell's resistance to being called a "feminist" - her decision to live off the land, without a man, was a radically feminist act.

No wonder that For the Roses is one of Mitchell's most overtly feminist albums. Look no further than its penultimate track, "Woman of Heart and Mind", which feels like a spiritual successor to Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman". Here, Mitchell declares to an unnamed (and unruly) lover: "I am a woman of heart and mind / with time on her hands / no child to raise". She admonishes him for coming to her "like a little boy" and asking for her "praise" before facing the falsities of "free love" head-on: "After the rush when you come back down / You're always disappointed / Nothing seems to keep you high / Drive your bargains / Push your papers / Win your medals / Fuck your strangers / Don't it leave you on the empty side?"

At the end of the second verse, Mitchell tells her partner that she's "looking for affection and respect / A little passion" while ridiculing him for wanting "stimulation / Nothing more". Lyrics like these reveal the insight and self-reliance of someone who knows what she wants in a relationship (and in life) and aims to make her inamorato aware of the incompatibility of their ways of loving.

In Court and Spark's "Car on a Hill", Mitchell sings about her willingness to stay up all night and wait for her roving man to come home. Lyrics like "Sitting up waiting for my sugar to show... he said he'd be over three hours ago" and "I watch for judgment anxiously / Where in the city could that boy be?" bespeak a kind of relational power imbalance and of romantic passivity and compliance on Mitchell's part.

There's a similar tendency to put her own feelings on the back burner in Blue's "All I Want". In that song, she asks the lover who's repeatedly bruised her "do you see how you hurt me baby?", before promising to "write [him] a love letter" and "make [him] feel better". On "Woman of Heart and Mind" and For the Roses more broadly, Mitchell went back to the land and made herself feel better.

It's important to note that For the Roses isn't the first album written by a woman who turned to nature and reclaimed her strength and femininity there. Two notable singer-songwriter LPs preceded Mitchell's by two years, though they hardly received the same exposure in their day.

Californian Linda Perhacs released her debut album Parallelograms in the spring of 1970. She worked as a dental hygienist in Topanga Canyon beginning in the late 1960s and upon telling Oscar-winning film composer Leonard Rosenman (one of her many "Hollywood" patients) that she wrote songs, he got her a record deal with Kapp Records. The result was a dreamy set of 11 psych-folk tunes inspired, in the words of Perhacs, by "long solitary walks in nature" and her "love of the universe".

Lyrics like "It rains here / Every day since I came / And the lichen covers rocks / And the green finds everything" from the album's opener "Chimacum Rain" convey Perhacs' profound affinity for the wilderness that surrounded her. When the album failed to find an audience, Perhacs abandoned her music career and resumed working as a dental hygienist for the next 30 years. It wasn't until the early 2000s that her album attained cult status among folk fans and record collectors.

A similar fate befell Londoner Vashti Bunyan's Just Another Diamond Day, released in the winter of 1970. A nature-flavored favorite thanks to songs like "Glow Worms", "Lily Pond", "Come Wind Come Rain", and "Rainbow River", her album (like Perhacs') failed to make a splash when it first came out. Bunyan left the music industry to raise her children and went "back to the land" full throttle. But she returned to music decades later (also like Perhacs) when she learned Just Another Diamond Day had become an underground sensation.

While For the Roses might not be the first album recorded by a woman who went "back to the land", the belated success of Parallelograms and Just Another Diamond Day means that it's perhaps the first album recorded by a woman who went "back to the land" to chart in the Top 20 of the Billboard 200 and yield a Top 40 single. The success of cottagecore-esque LPs like folklore and Song for Our Daughter in the new millennium - with the former hitting No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in 2020 and the latter hitting No. 6 on the UK Charts the same year - speaks to the impact and legacy of Mitchell's success at pushing nature-centric feminist folk-pop into the mainstream.

That For the Roses was recorded by Mitchell during a time in her life when she went "back to the land" is also significant in the context of her own discography. Save for a few songs on 1991's Night Ride Home (the sound of crickets come to mind on its title track), no other album in her catalog quite echoes the woodsy sound - or look - of her fifth LP.

The singer-songwriter's anguished visage on Blue's cover, pictured in close-up and shrouded in navy-colored shadows, precisely evoked that album's dark and up-close-and-personal revelations. Meanwhile, For the Roses' cover art photo - featuring Mitchell in a green sweater and work boots while surrounded by tree branches and seated on a rocky cliff overlooking a river - perfectly captures its forestial sounds and lyrics and the unique personal journey that spawned them.

It's a journey that transcends For the Roses and continues in albums like Marling's and Swift's. On Song for Our Daughter, Marling has "left [her] heart with a man in those Eastern woods" and can be seen in her album's accompanying short film traipsing through the moss-green English countryside while a young actor playing her imagined (titular) daughter runs her hands over tree bark at dusk. Meanwhile, folklore's iconic misty cover art renders Swift, in a flowing frock and checkered peacoat, a mere speck amongst towering forest trees.

Of course, Mitchell's stay in British Columbia would prove temporary. She was back in California by 1973 and writing and recording Court and Spark in all its sun-kissed, Los Angeles glory. But for a brief moment in time - and like two of her 21st-century singer-songwriter disciples during the Covid-19 lockdown - Mitchell traded the hubbub of the big city for nature's quiet solitude.

There, she wrote an album of unparalleled earthy wonder.

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