Understanding Joni Mitchell

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The beginning of my “Understanding Joni” playlist.

This playlist is meant to provide an entry point to Joni Mitchell in addition to offering a more profound exploration of her work. It goes far beyond the singles and her early successes, which are brilliant in their own right, to get at the tracks that are easily missed, overlooked, or overshadowed.

For Part 1, here are 12 songs that span the breadth of her career, stylistic changes, and themes.

I’m starting with Little Green, possibly a familiar song, off of Blue (1971), because it holds the key to understanding much of the melancholy that marks Joni’s work. While obvious in hindsight, at the time of it’s release it wasn’t known, beyond a few individuals, that Joni had to give up her daughter, Kelly, about whom this song is written. We get rich imagery of nature, seasons, sadness and celebration, and an unaccountable man–all of which are central themes throughout Joni’s career.

Little Green, along with a number of other songs on Blue. was also a radio-friendly single. As her career moved on, her songs had fewer hooks and veered farther and farther from folk/pop, incorporating a more jazz, blues, rock and even new age sound.

The contrast with the later work can be heard in Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody from While Things Run Fast (1982). A less well known track off a less well known album. Sonically, this is a much more layered production, with Joni on Piano, as opposed to guitar, as part of a jazz quartet. Thematically, Joni revisits the adopted child “I bore her, but I did not raise her…” and wanting her touch, in a half cover of Unchained Melody. This cover or reimagining of a classic is an early example of what would mark her later career, especially the triumphant Both Sides Now, which consisted of jazz standards as well as covers of her own material reorganized in a semi-coherent concept album–more on that later.

The song is also a letter, or one side of a conversation, addressed to a woman named Carol, another recurrent device in Joni’s catalog.

Song for Sharon from Hejira (1976) uses this device. The song specifically is addressed to an old friend, remembering their early times together in Canada and wondering at how different Joni and Sharon’s lives are now, with Joni refusing to or unable to settle with “a husband and a farm;” other men, cities (the big apple), and adventures tempt her more.

The icy guitars and cool bass lines, provided by Jaco Pastorius, contrast Joni’s earlier acoustic guitar (and other string instruments) and piano heavy work. As a record, Hejira is part of a major turning point in Joni’s career and perhaps her magnum opus. In the mid-1970s, she began to move away from less coherent singles-heavy work with Court and Spark (1974) and The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) (this could have also arguably started with 1972’s For The Roses. Hejira is the most peak of this progression, and provided the fewest radio-friendly songs of any of her records up until this time. It’s also a road album, almost a travel diary, whereas her earlier works have a much more defined sense of place, especially in cities. Additionally, it’s much more intimate, with every song about Joni (and not masked with metaphor as in Little Green) and having a similar setting–the road. These changes will continue become more and more apparent as we move further through her catalog.

Before I give a more clear example of that progression, I want to highlight another gem from this period—Down To You from Court And Spark, Joni’s most successful album. Here, again, we have themes of loneliness and self-reflection via lost love. The repeated lyric “Everything comes and goes” is echoed in the line “Nothing last for long” in Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody. This fleetingness and changingness pairs with Joni’s fearlessness as well. Here as in other songs, Joni remains confident that, though she will get “knocked down,” her stubborn brutishness and her angelic flightyness will keep her going.

Now, I want to look at the thematic, structural and sonic progression via 2 sets of examples. The first pairing is the most obvious, perhaps: 2 versions of Both Sides Now, one from 1969’s Clouds (1969), the second from 2000’s album named after song. On display are two extremes of Joni’s sound, separated by 30 years. The earlier rendition consists of only Joni’s voice and a guitar, providing the melody and harmony respectively in a well structured folk song. Though the lyrics remain, 2000’s version is radically different, with Joni singing with a talking candor an octave lower over a bed of strings, reeds and horns. When this was performed live it featured a full orchestra. We can’t tap our feet to this version.

Thematically at its most basic, the song is a reflection on finding and falling out of love—and seeing it from both sides, but it is also a reflection on growing with age and experiences, and learning about yourself (and all the things that are hidden—”life’s Illusions”–about yourself) through the process. Our interests change from simple clouds, to flashy ferris wheels, to lovers to ourselves. The gravity of this is fully expressed in the later version: the music swells and recedes, raising us up into the clouds with Joni, inviting us to take advantage the heightened perspective and use this displacement to really think back on the many sides of life and love we’ve seen. This isn’t to imply that any of Joni’s early work is shallow, she played with this poppiness several times, referencing it in Court And Spark in Free man in Paris, (“Stoking the star-maker machinery / Behind the popular song”) and most ironically in the joke song turned hit You Turn Me On I’m A Radio off For The Roses (1972).

The second set of songs take us through this progression in a less abrupt way. We start with the light, uptempo, Big Yellow Taxi from Ladies of the Canyon (1970) before moving onto Blonde In The Bleachers, from For the Roses (1972). Blonde is a slower song with rock influences that featuring an quick piano solo that later delves into a chaotic jazz freakout at the end. Next is Don’t Interrupt The Sorrow off The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975). The mid 1970’s turn is reflected in this record, with a lot of experimentation across genres, and this song illustrates the thematic and musical progression. Hissing is a loose concept album, and the lyrics hint at a woman’s budding feminism being kept in check by an abusive, evasive, man. Other songs on the record feature relationships that are also untenable, such as Harry’s House; Centerpiece or The Boho Dance.

We move to the title track off of Hejira (1976) which features a sound that is similar to the other song off the record that we examined, Song for Sharon. By now, the pop guitars of the late 60’s have given way to bowing synthesized tracks and lush bass lines, and experience has provided Joni with deeper shades to talk about her attempts at love. Here we have another failed one, but Joni learned this time on the road writing Hejira, an islamic word for an exodus or early Muslims led by Muhammed, that she has to reckon her desire for independence and her loneliness, lamenting:

We’re only particles of change, I know, I know
Orbiting around the sun,
But how can I have that point of view
When I’m always bound and tied to someone?

Featuring electric guitars, Wild Things Run Fast from the 1982 record of the same name is one the most rock and roll tracks in Joni’s catalog. There are a few other rock songs on this record, such as You Dream Flat Tires or Underneath The Streetlight but the rest of the record are more like the previously examined Chinese Cafe. Joni isn’t only experimenting musically–the track starts with a seriously great guitar riff–lyrically, the song is about a fast love affair with a figure similar to the titular Coyote from Hejira’s first track.

Finally, Stay in Touch” off Taming the Tiger (1998). Recorded two years before Both Sides Now this was almost Joni’s last record of new material and features an orchestration similar to Both Sides Now, if only less lush, featuring woodwinds and horns, along with some synthesized tracks. As with much o the rest of the record, Stay in Touch is a ballad, about two fast-lovers, perhaps true soulmates, meeting but afraid of burning out. There is hopefulness but also trepidation, to the love that both want. Perhaps they should take it slow and deliberately, perhaps they should let the love unfold by itself. It is as if the narrator of Both Sides Now is still learning to do it right.

These song provide just a glimpse at the breadth of Joni Mitchell’s styles both musically and lyrically. It takes a much deeper dive to appreciate the true arc of her career and range of her talent. Joni is a singular figure in many ways, and her influence is undeniable. I will revisit this playlist again in the near future, taking a less wide view and honing in on some specific ideas and tropes from her work which I could only give cursory expression here.