Joni Mitchell: Still Travelling

by Ellen Willis
New Yorker
March 3, 1973

JONI MITCHELL's fourth album, "Blue", converted me from a wellwisher to a fan. I had always liked her, but we had never really connected. Her image tended to stand between me and her music. I saw the gentle, soft-spoken, fair-haired folk singer, the classic old lady, the Muse to numerous folk rock machers who had to encourage her to overcome her shyness and record - the compleat hippie chick, in short - and I was looking for other models. Besides I thought of her voice as a curiosity, a freak of nature that ought to be of some use but was really more of a distraction than anything else. Several of her songs - "Both Sides Now" and "Big Yellow Taxi," in particular - were among my favourites, but I preferred other people's versions.

Then came "Blue". What hit me first was that the freaky voice had found its purpose. Before, it had just been there; now Joni was controlling it, using it to express an exploratory urgency that her lyric confirmed. "Blue" was less a collection of songs than a piece of music divided into sections. Its central theme was travel, literal and spiritual - a familiar folk metaphor, except that instead of a man on the road the traveller was a woman pursuing her female identity through the byways of the pop world. The sensibility that emerged (it had been lurking inconspicuously in Mitchell's previous albums, particularly "Ladies of the Canyon") was a blend of romanticism and stoicism which illuminated the pop milieu in a new way - a feat I wouldn't have thought possible. Although Joni never forced the analogy, the men she loved-hated with such forgiving irony obviously embodied that milieu; from one angle "Blue" was a neat reversal of the world-as-bitch-goddess fantasy. But that did not mean simple. There were more resonances in lines like "You're my holy wine, You taste so bitter and so sweet, Oh I could drink a case of you darling, And I would still be on my feet" than most performers put on an entire album.

"Blue" established Joni Mitchell as a better singer-songwriter than Crosby, Stills, Nash & Taylor combined. Her fifth album, "For the Roses" (Asylum SD 5057), is an elaboration of "Blue" - and both technically and thematically - and is in some ways even finer. Unfortunately, it is also less accessible. Joni's melodies and lyrics and rhythms are so rich and complicated and un-pop-song-like, her voice such a subtle instrument, her artistic pretension so overt that if the record were any less brilliant it would be a disaster. As it is, I'm not sure how I would have reacted if I hadn't heard "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio" first - on the radio. "You Turn Me On" is an irresitable tour de force, a metaphysical poem (I mean the kind dispensed by Donne, not Rod McKuen) based on the crucial technological metaphor for rock and roll. Witty, playful, gently self-mocking, it explores the lighthearted surface it stripped away. Other songs just display the cracks: "I heard it in the wind last night, It sounded like applause." Chilly now, End of summer. Like "Blue," "For the Roses" is full of acerbic comment about men and difficulties and ambiguities of love. But where "Blue" emphasized the adventures of new emotional terrain, "For the Roses" is more preoccupied with dead ends, limitations, final failures. At the same time, recurrent images of electricity and fire speak of a new kind of gathering energy, abstract and awesome - can it be anger? "You've got to roar like forest fire....They're going to aim the hoses on you. Show them you won't expire," Joni cries in "Judgement of the Moon and Stars." But that's material for another album.

Even before Carly Simon married James Taylor, she wasn't exactly one of my favorite people. Her wide-eyed lyrics inevitable aroused my class antagonism. Maybe that's the way she always heard it should be, I was wont to grumble, but us funky types from the streets of Queens knew better before we were ten. Which is to say that I would never have predicted that one of my favourite single of the past year would be a Carly Simon song. But I love "You're so Vain". It's great rock and roll; the inspired sloppiness of its language is positively Dylanesque; and it has a lot more feminist verve than Helen Reddy's manifesto. It's not so much the words that carry the message - although "You're so vain, you prob'ly think this song is about you" is one of the all time great lines- as the good-humored nastiness in Carly's voice.

"You're so Vain" inspired me to pay more attention than I normally would have to Simon's latest L.P., "No Secrets" (Elektra, EKS - 75049). I'm not sure whether I'm sorry or relieved that I can't report any great breakthrough. I'm moderately fond of a few songs - notably "We Have No Secrets", which is about how openness and honesty can be pain. (Yeah, I know words like "In the name of honesty, in the name of what is fair, You always answer my questions, but they don't always answer my prayers" sound silly when you repeat them. So do a lot of Dylan's.) But Carly's father fixation is still much in evidence, and her melodies are too often muddy, her phrasing amorphous, her voice self-important. Oh, well. I guess "You're so Vain" is one of those happy tributes to the democratic promise of rock and roll - that each of us, even a rich little rich girl, has something worthwhile to communicate over AM radio.

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