For The Roses is often overlooked, sandwiched as it is between two masterpieces. Fans who missed it might be surprised at its richness -- musically, lyrically, and emotionally. It has always been one of my favourites.
For the Roses sits between Blue and Court and Spark not only chronologically, but musically. There are the rich, deep piano chords of Blue, but heralds of another sound are mixed in -- woodwinds, reeds, and strings, Joni's own multi-track backing vocals -- hints here and there of what would be developed so astonishingly on Court and Spark.
The album opens with a political song, a song of social consciousness, which appear sporadically in Joni's work. The singer is at a party, an elaborate banquet, the banquet that is our world.
Tuck your napkins inThis profound and perhaps forgotten song sets the tone for the album, a somber minor key, even when a tune lifts and the lyrics are happier -- not unlike Blue.
And take your share
Some get the gravy
And some get the gristle
Some get the marrow bone
And some get nothing
Though there's plenty to spare
Who let the greedy in
And who left the needy out
Who made this salty soup
Tell him we're very hungry now
For a sweeter fare
Is this the first time we hear Joni use her guitar as a percussion instrument? I'm not sure, but it's exciting to hear this signature sound in 1972.
The title track of For The Roses traces a familiar theme -- art vs. commerce. Her difficult relationship with the business that brings art to fans. Where the adulation comes from, and how fleeting it is.
Remember the days when you used to sitAnother familiar theme -- love vs. freedom -- appears in "Let the Wind Carry Me".
And make up your tunes for love
And pour your simple sorrow
To the soundhole and your knee
And now you're seen
On giant screens
And at parties for the press
And for people who have slices of you
From the company
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
Sometimes I get that feelingI remember reading an interview in which Joni was asked if she wanted to have children. She said she has thought of it, but feels that there should be two parents, at least for the first 10 or so years of a child's life -- and she didn't see being able to do that with any man. It seemed sad to me, but also strong, realistic, focused. Self-aware. She seemed (to me) to say it without judgement.
And I want to settle
And raise a child up with somebody
I get that strong longing
And I want to settle
And raise a child up with somebody
But it passes like the summer
I'm a wild seed again
Let the wind carry me
"Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" is about heroin. I always think of that "down, down, down the dark ladder" -- an arresting image of addiction.
"Blonde in the Bleachers" is written about a male musician and a girlfriend, but now I wonder if Joni changed her identity for this song, reversing the roles into a more familiar formula.
"Ludwig's Tune," about Beethoven, has always been one of my very favourite Joni numbers. It used to feel very personal to me: They're gonna aim the hoses on you, show them, you won't expire.... Joni identifies with Beethoven -- also with Van Gogh and Picasso. No false modesty for her, and that confidence in her own artistic worth was used against her in many an interview and review. More sexism, of course.
Joni was already experimenting with jazz sounds on this album, through Tom Scott's wind instruments and Wilton Felder's bass, through meandering outros and long instrumental bridges. You can hear this on "Ludwig's Tune," "Barangrill," even "Blonde in the Bleachers".
Joni's voice is fully developed by this time, not only the impressive range, but her unique phrasing and diction. I've seen it called "vocal acting" -- the ability to mine meaning from lyrics, often changing the feel of a song through a single word or phrase. This is one reason why covers of Joni's songs always feel pale and neutered.
Bad critic comment of the album
I actually couldn't find any.
I found many critics referring to Joni herself in ways I find annoying and sometimes offensive -- "the poorest little rich girl in Laurel Canyon" -- but the same critic would praise her honest self-reflection, her writing, her voice.
We're now in a period of incredible creativity and output for Joni: Blue (1971), For the Roses (1972), Court and Spark (1974), The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), Hejira (1976). I don't know when the backlash starts, but I know it's in full swing by the time Hejira is released.
The album cover
This cover is a really interesting mix. On the front, Joni dressed in deep earth tones, sitting on the ground in the woods. (It's actually taken at her BC hideaway.) Inside, an original painting, and a seascape with a nude photo.
Joni has said that her mother was upset and felt ashamed of the nude photo on the inside cover -- a bucolic, naturist image, and a tame one, not at all provocative or overtly sexual. This highlighted the distance, both literal and figurative, between Joni and her parents.
There's an often-told story about the artwork Joni originally drew for the cover, that Geffen wouldn't let her use, and which ended up as an L.A. billboard.
Cacti or stockings?
Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig's Tune): Long silk stockings on the bedposts of refinement, You're too raw, They think you're too raw...
Other musicians on this album
Woodwinds and Reeds, Tom Scott (listed as Tommy Scott)
Bass, Wilton Felder
Drums, Russ Kunkel
Percussion, Bobbye Hall
Strings, Bobby Notkoff
Harmonica, Graham Nash
Electric Guitar (Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire), James Burton
Rock 'n' Roll Band (Blonde in the Bleachers), Stephen Stills
Why my album covers look so bad
It was the summer of 1981, in one of my many Philadelphia sublets. I came home to find a pipe had burst and my bedroom was partially flooded. My albums were on the floor, and wouldn't you know it, the M's partially submerged -- Van Morrison, and Joni.
I oh-so-carefully separated every soggy cardboard cover, every sleeve and LP, and laid them out all over the apartment. I discovered you could buy blank album sleeves! I also bought some liquid stuff that was supposed to deep-clean the vinyl.
In the end, no music was lost.
I never could have guessed that within the decade, LPs themselves would become obsolete. At least when I play a CD I don't have to see those ruined album covers.
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