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For the Roses   Print

by Robert Christgau
Newsday
January 1973

Instead of writing, I fell asleep and dreamed I was reading the cover of For the Roses, which is some sort of tribute to Joni Mitchell's power. Because lyrics are music, and music is for listening, not much of my fantasy life is invested in printed lyrics. I figure the reason Bob Dylan has never provided a jacket libretto is that he wanted the reality of his songs to remain aural, and what's good enough for him . . . . But Joni Mitchell invites perusal. She has been writing textbook lyrics-as-poetry ever since "Both Sides Now."

"Both Sides Now" is such a great song that in 1968 it became a hit for a woman, Judy Collins, even though it wasn't about a man. But it does not proceed from vocal modes--it is philosophical rather than lyrical, literary rather than colloquial, a rather bookish song, and unlike most songs with similar pretensions, it almost lives up to them. The lyric is consistent and sophisticated and develops with beguiling logical ease. Yet it is also a piece of corn. With its iambs marching like so many wooden soldiers through lines like "The dizzy dancing way you feel," it reads as if nothing had happened to English prosody since Keats and Wordsworth.

Nevertheless, "Both Sides Now" is a great song, because the woman who wrote it has a talent for melody that equals her talent for words. When sung, those iambs make the melody soar. Yet when Mitchell performed it on Clouds--slowly, with a single acoustic guitar, in the reedy style of her first two LP's, the somewhat stiff production accentuating that thin voice with the startling highs and lows and the attenuated middle--it didn't sound especially thrilling. It seemed designed for the rich, relaxed, rather melodramatic clarity of Judy Collins's contralto and Joshua Rifkin's arrangement. It was tempting to classify Mitchell somewhere behind Collins and Baez, a second-rate folkie madonna.

But unlike Baez and Collins (and even Dylan and Taylor) Joni Mitchell has always sung her own material exclusively. She is a composer first, a performer second. And although David Crosby, one of a long succession of famous boyfriends, produced her first album, the four since then list no producer at all--just an engineer, Henry Lewy. Her recording career has been a public learning experience. First it seemed that she wanted to perform up to the standard of her own composition. Now she appears to be adapting her composition to the even higher potential of her own performance.

The first two albums are marred by indecisive material--Joni ascending almost imperceptibly into the ether--and by the misuse of her chief vocal asset, or quirk, a range of about three octaves. She sang melodies written for a normal folk soprano with almost decorous formalism, as if she were afraid of tripping over her own register. But by her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, she sometimes used the banister instead of the stairs, and by the fourth, Blue, she was writing melodies so slippery that other women complained they were unsingable.

Well, Joni Mitchell has never evinced a very highly developed sense of sisterhood anyway. Despite her somewhat obsessive protestations of femininity, she likes the challenge of boys' competition, and even though she gets beaten up again and again, she always goes back for more. Over the past three albums she has offered an exciting, scary glimpse of a woman in a man's world. As long ago as "Both Sides Now" she was explicitly rejecting conventional love relationships for the something lost and something gained of living day by day, but her doubts have become more explicit with each record. From the song "Blue": "Well everybody's saying/ that hell's the hippest way to go/ Well I don't think so." Only to add: "But I'm gonna take a look around it though."

Like her voice, Joni Mitchell's lyrics have always suggested emotional life with startling highs and lows and an attenuated middle. Just because she knows herself, she reveals how dangerous and attractive such a life can be, especially for women. If this is what it's like for James Taylor's (Graham Nash's) (B. Mitchell Reid's) girlfriend, what can it be like for her lowly fans? In a male performer such intense self-concern would be an egotistic cop-out. In a woman it is an act of defiance.

Not that Mitchell herself has always perceived it that way. The key to Blue is improvisatory flexibility--if the shifting interpersonal values of the Los Angeles music scene fit her life-style, she implied, so the relaxed jam of the music itself suits the changes of her voice. But on For the Roses she is more wary, even cynical. At times, her criticisms of the men who have failed her after all sound almost petulant--how can the jet-setting Joni of Blue demand "More quiet times/ By a river flowing/ You and me/ Deep kisses"? But the appearance of petulance is often a price of liberation. The pretty swoops of her voice used to sound like a semiconscious parody of the demands placed on all female voices and all females, the demands that produce phony folkie madonnas and high-caste groupies. This music is more calculated, more clearly hers, composed to her vocal contours not on the spot but with deliberate forethought.

For the Roses has none of the ingratiating ease of Blue--there is no "All I Want" here, no "Carey," nothing bright and lively, nothing good-time. Mitchell's line has become so sinuous and complex that the melodies lack first-time appeal--those iambs are gone forever. In another artist such foreboding music might even hint at elitism, but it so happens that Joni's biggest single is on this record--"You Turn Me On (I'm a Radio)" has gone top ten. Anyway, Joni has spent too much of her life trying to please. She's wise enough to warrant stubborn attention, and ultimately, For the Roses becomes almost hypnotic. It is one more advance in an artistic career that has never faltered. Maybe next time she'll write a song or two to her women friends.

 

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