New releases by Canada's leading songsmiths cast some revealing light on each other
In the old days of popular music, men were men and women were - it says in some of those recent analyses of old songs - abused. Now, though, David Bowie and other painted persons are happy to be asexual, bisexual, polysexual, pansexual, whatever works, and many of the pop stars who are still interested in music (you remember music) are phasing out the Me-Tarzan-You-Jane (or vice versa) slant in favor of a committment more, ah, *aware* politically.
Against that background then, one is likely to notice all the more that two powerful new albums from America's best Canadian songwriters, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot, have the flavor of yesterday's heterosexuality about them, and seem, too, rather luxuriously traditional in their romanticism. The Canadian upbringing no doubt is a factor, as is the long view both artists are able to take. Lightfoot's SUNDOWN for Reprise is a scrumptious summation of what else he has done; compared to what several *other* troubadours are doing, it's notably broad-shouldered, wide-brimmed, lean-hipped, and outdoorsy. Mitchell's COURT AND SPARK for Asylum is, in that kind of comparison, butterfly-light, bluebird-lovely, intricately lacy, and even a bit bitchy. It is also punctuated with earthiness and stumped a time or two by vulnerability. Neither takes what might be called a smug view of anything, but Lightfoot, in a manly, ulcer-inviting way, bottles it up sometimes with lines like "that's how it goes" while Mitchell goes to her usual great lengths to track down and define feelings. And, yes, I *know* it is cliche-mongering to say women talk about feelings more easily than men do, but still it jibes with my own observations, some made at dangerously close range.
But that gets us into the matter of which sex Ingmar Bergman might be: *he* comes into this because COURT AND SPARK is the kind of experience a good Bergman film is. You want to turn it off but cannot, you hate it and love it at the same time, you feel you are in the hands of a brutal but trustworthy genius and are somehow being tested. It is, as popular cant would have it, *heavy*, and Joni's feminine viewpoint doesn't lighten it much. Neither does her use of humor, which gets undermined when it has the floor, as it does in *Raised on Robbery*, the quotations of a pushy lady trying to pick up a gent who's more interested in the Toronto Maple Leafs game.
The title song ("courting" and "sparking" are dated terms used for a reason) is a charmer and only medium-heavy; *Free Man in Paris* is narrower in scope than all those boy-girl quandaries, but it is a brilliant song about fame-chasing, as ingratiating as it is well-built. *Car on a Hill* waits for the man to make the first move - specifically an *overdue* move, it seems - and reminds me of a story by Shirley Jackson. Only one song strikes me as weak - *Help Me*, which has no discernable melody. Joni's singing covers an even greater emotional range than it usually does, and the backing, while a bit too serene in places, is touched up with banks of harmonizing acoustic guitars, a stylized bouncy flow of piano and woodwinds, and other small delights.
SUNDOWN finds Lightfoot reunited with bass player John Stockfish, a regular with the troupe in the early days, but latter-day regular Rick Haynes is still around, too, and both are great. Lightfoot's songs are often keyed to the bass, and Lightfoot takes a direct (manly?) no-nonsense approach to instrumentation. His songs don't need anything getting in their way, anyhow, and these particular ones have quite a way about them; one after another, they are remarkable.
*Too Late for Prayin'*, an embarrassment of riches in itself, demonstrates how *quietly* remarkable they can be, but give yourself time and it will also demonstrate Lightfoot's uncanny ability to invent beautiful melodies and keep them simple, to say his piece in verses so graceful and economical that you can enjoy the flow of the syllables as many times as you like before settling down to what the words mean. *Circle of Steel* is another such demonstration, and my other special favorite is *Somewhere USA*, which has that long-legged pace that Lightfoot practically owns. The title song is perhaps *too* simple, but its refrain - which will stay in your head for a month, and you have no choice in the matter - has three different wordings, including, "Sometimes I think it's a sin/When I feel like I'm winnin' when I'm losin' again."
Lightfoot puts images, mostly with outdoor settings, into your head; Mitchell puts you in parties, trains, social situations, and thinking situations. It isn't quite a purely objective-subjective contrast you'll find in their approaches, but no one can blame you if you do a little broad-brush (no pun intended) thinking about male-female questions when listening to two albums so different, so similar, and so fine.