Joni Mitchell surrounds poetry with intense music

by Kenneth Altshuler
Michigan Daily
January 27, 1973

For the Roses (Asylum 5057) is not Joni Mitchell's best album. But it is good enough to be the best folk album of 1972, and it is the logical fifth album in a long series of musical successes.

To analyze Joni's album, one must look at her total music concept; the cohesive nature of one of her singular albums is represented in the trend she has established in all five albums as a series. Songs for a Seagull is 90 percent lyrics and 10 percent music; Joni emphasizes an incredible ability to explore a theme completely in a rhythmic, patterned, lyrical way. In Clouds, she begins to balance her lyrics with more musical influence - the lyrics are significant, but the music transports the thoughts more easily. Ladies of the Canyon is the height of perfect balance between music and lyrics. Here, each song in itself is a total album concept, and the poetry is so perfectly surrounded by music as to make the difference indistinguishable. And in Blue, Joni's best album, she goes one step further; she simplifies both the lyrics and the music, to make her purpose so beautifully clear, so perfectly understandable, that a listener is now a participant. And in making the album simplified, she doesn't lose her depth or intensity - rather she refines and matures both.

So Joni patterns continuous emphasis on balancing music with lyrics, and in Ladies and Blue, she reaches the balance and simply intensifies each - but they are still equally balanced. In For the Roses, the musical importance increases, but the lyrics only continue their steady excellence. So we hear intensified musical compositions, and stable lyrical complements - the trouble being that the balance is tipped and the transition and varying importance between words and tune can be disturbing. There are examples of the imbalances that is refreshing and musically progressive, but the few songs that this adversely affects reduces the greatness of the record.

For the Roses is a condensation of her thoughts of herself as a woman, a composer, and a writer, in that order. The title cut, without a doubt, is the best song of the album. To understand the story she sings, one has to hear the lyrics in totality - to take out sentences would be to take her thoughts out of context. But in this song she summarizes her life at the moment she wrote it: As a woman (It seems like many dim years ago/Since I heard that face to face/Or seen you face to face), composer (The lights go down -/And it's just you up there/Getting them to feel like that), and poet (Now I sit up here/The critic!). This is one of the best songs Joni has ever written. The lyrics are not a bare stripping of the writer, but a portrayal of what she feels about herself, her life, and her career at this moment in time. In perfect complement, the music has steady streams of notes, and then a dip and a rise, using the guitar as steps to a higher level of thought.

The most obvious song reflecting her thoughts as a woman is Woman of Heart and Mind; a truly touching commentary on an emotional part of Joni's identity. "You think I'm like your mother/ Or another lover or your sister/ Or the queen of your dreams/ Or just another silly girl/ When love makes a fool of me." But she's confident about herself and her feelings - she questions the man: "Do you really laugh?/ Do you really care?/ Do you really smile/ When you smile?". Hauntingly questioning lyrics to go with the mellow, smooth-flowed composition.

"See You Sometime" is a continuation of her womanhood theme, questioning a situation with a past lover. "O.K. hang up the phone/ It hurts/ But something survives." With an apparent reference to James Taylor (Pack your suspenders/ I'll come meet the plane", it's a comment to any past emotional involvement - even if the situation changes, emotions are still there. And musically, she simply follows her statements with tuneful answers.

"The Blond in the Bleachers" is a different sort of woman. "She flips her hair for you/ ...She follows you home/ ...and she says "You can't hold the hand/ Of a Rock 'n Roll man/ Very long." A lively guitar provided by Stephen Stills paces a rock and roll tune in which she simply describes a different kind of woman, either in herself or in another.

The last touch of her theme is found in "You Turn Me On I'm A Radio." Though it touches on a relationship, it's basically a romantic tale: the country flavor fits her lyrics "I'm a little bit corny" and in the tightest musical arrangement of the album, she sings a happy/sad tale with her guitar and voice.

"Let the Wind Carry Me" is an example of her imbalanced musical/lyrical importance that comes off well. This saddened balladeer-type song tells of a family: a teenage girl who dresses in a "kick pleat skirt", with "eyelids painted green" and "staying up late in her high-heeled shoes". Mama "thinks she spoilt me" and Papa "somehow knows he set me free". The song is hollow in a musical sense - not incomplete but complementary to the story. Her music allows time to view this family situation since that's her emphasis and should be our interest.

"Banquet" is her best social commentary since "Fiddle and the Drum" from Clouds. "Some get the gravy/ And some get the gristle/ Some get the marrow bone/ And some get nothing/ Though there's plenty to spare." Driving notes to drive home a thought. When Joni speaks of starving, she makes you feel the hunger in her pounding notes and her striving lyrics. Her music makes her thoughts positively unnerving.

"Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" has the best guitar work on the album, provided by James Burton. If one does not derive the message of heroin by the title, the "Looking for Sweet Fire/ lyrics "Looking for Sweet Fire/ Shadow of Lady Release/ "Come with me/ I know the way" she says/ "It's down, down, down, the dark ladder" spells out Joni's message. Her downtrodden pace and taunting invitation to death makes you fear the power of the song as much as the heroin.

"Lesson in Survival" has incredible lyrical construction. The words are loose and unclear, but this sporadicness spells out the confusion of this story is meant to convey. Back to back lyrics state "Maybe it's paranoia/ maybe it's sensitivity/ Your friends protect you/ Scrutinize me" and" I need more quiet times/ By a river flowing/ You and me/ Deep kisses/ And the sun going down." The music is a marked contrast to the lyrics, though a definite bonus. The piano is constant, as the notes spell out the questions and confusion in a melancholy fashion.

The two sore spots of the album and the examples of the harm done by the musical/lyrical imbalance are "Barangrill" and "Electricity." "Barangrill" appears to be filler material, and though Joni's fillers are far superior to other folk singers best songs, it doesn't help her album. The inadequacy is that the lyrics are insignificant though poetic, and the music isn't aesthetically pleasing. It's just not that good. "Electricity" has good music - its tune is indeed electrifying, really jumping and lively. But the lyrics, though they possess electrical terms, do not complement an otherwise good composition, and thus is a disappointing part of the side.

"Judgment of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune)" is my favorite song of the album. It's not well balanced; except for the second half, the composition far out shines the lyrics. But the whole song is so successfully experimentive; the imbalance can be overlooked simply because of its professionalism. She speaks of Beethoven as if she was his best friend, and just as you get to know Joni personally in For the Roses, you certainly discover Beethoven after this song. The tune possesses fantastic keyboard work as befits Joni and or Ludwig: Joni makes Beethoven her central theme and surrounds him with her music, just as Beethoven would in his works. First she sees him in respect to other people: "Cold white keys under your fingers. Now you're thinking "That's no substitute." She follows with a moment's dedication to Ludwig a piano interlude; not one of his symphonies, but one of hers. The whole song belongs to the second segment in which, like a personal friend, Joni says "If you're feeling contempt/ Well then you tell it/ If you're tired of the silent night/ Jesus, well then you yell it." Musically and lyrically highlighting the second side, it completes the album on a perfect note.

For the Roses is a combination of many things. It's technically Joni experimenting with the balance of music and lyrics. But thematically, it's an in depth review of herself, primarily as a woman, and secondarily as a composer, poet. It's not a bleeding-heart, self-pitying analysis - more of an independent look at herself as an individual. Her sentimentality is that of a romantic, and her introspection and statements are probing and confident.

But if anything is true about Joni's albums, it's that they are for her more than for us. Joni loves to tell stories, propose thoughts, and make the listener laugh, cry, and feel. Her being a composer and poet achieves this, but more importantly, it enables her to see what she feels about herself and her life. It's an attempt to portray an individual and convey the discovery to others - For the Roses accomplishes both.

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