At a time when so many of our most successful and respected songwriters - from Carole King to Gordon Lightfoot to James Taylor - are having difficulty coming up with something fresh in their music, Joni Mitchell, as literate a writer as we have, continues to produce works of richness and value. Her new For the Roses album (Asylum SD 5057 - distributed by Atlantic Records) is the latest case in point.
From the insights in her lyrics to the wholly distinctive vocal style, there is such quality in Miss Mitchell's albums that each one has a way of growing more impressive and personal as time passes - a fact that sometimes makes her new albums seem a disappointment until you have grown as familiar with them as you have with her earlier ones.
But a look back at her albums shows a remarkable consistency, each offering observations about love and human relationships that form a vital link in her total boy of work. Looking at the four previous Reprise albums, for instance, we find such songs as "Michael from Mountains" and "Cactus Tree" in the Joni Mitchell album, such tunes as "Chelsea Morning" and "Both Sides Now" on the Clouds album, such songs as "For Free" and "The Circle Game" on Ladies of the Canyon and such works as "All I Want" and "A Case of You" on last year's "Blue".
One of the reasons Miss Mitchell is able to produce works of merit so consistently is her willingness to explore and then honestly reveal - rather than soften, filter or glamorize - her emotions and experiences, both the joys and, more importantly, the sorrows. She is able to face her disappointments in love and deal with them in an instructive way in song.
Several of the 12 songs on the For the Roses album (among them "Lesson in Survival," "Woman of Heart and Mind" and "See You Sometime") deal with moments of defeat or insecurity in an open, honest way that few other major writers could duplicate. In "Lesson in Survival," for instance, she tells about the inadequacies a lover brought out in her: "Your friends protect you/ Scrutinize me/ I get so damn timid/ Not at all the spirit/ That's inside of me."
The album's other highlights include "Blonde in the Bleachers," a song about the difficulty one faces in holding on to a free-spirited, rock 'n' roll man; "Electricity," a well-designed song that plays the elusive nature of electricity against the elusive nature of love; "Judgement of the Moon and Stars," an ode to Beethoven or any passionate artist, and "You Turn Me On (I'm a Radio)," a light, bouncy tune about offering to comfort someone the way a radio station's music lends support.
But the album's best two songs are "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," a haunting, convincing account of the helplessness that heroin offers its victims, and the title song, a marvelously sensitive and moving account of the hopes, rise and fall of a pop music star.
In the song, Miss Mitchell traces the artist through the early loneliness and fright of getting started ("In some office sits a poet/ And he trembles as he sings/ And he asks some guy/ To circulate his soul around") to the time, long after stardom has arrived, that the public tires of him.
Between the rise and the fall, however, there is the time his music becomes a product and Miss Mitchell tells about the parties in which the business people who have a slice of you celebrate your latest million seller: "They toss around your latest golden egg/ Speculation - well, who's to know/ If the next one in the nest/ Will glitter for them so."
Handsomely designed, the album package contains original artwork by Miss Mitchell and a tasteful somewhat distant photo of her standing nude on a rock looking out at the ocean. But the real value, as usual, is in the music and the value of Miss Mitchell's music, also as usual, is at the highest level in contemporary pop music.