Friday, 9 September 2011

Joni Mitchell - Clouds

The flowering of a Canadian genius.

Adorned by a beautiful self-portrait, much more successful than the rather more dated (but admittedly sweet) cover she did for her debut, Joni Mitchell's second album, like her first, is dominated by the Spartan combination of her voice and guitar.

The C.S.N. connections of her debut - David Crosby produced it, Stephen Stills plays on it, and she was in a relationship with Graham Nash - give way to a more independent stance. Whilst David Crosby's minimalist production helped establish a template that this album follows, Rothchild's production is, if anything, even starker. Crosby favoured quite a lot of rather wet reverb, most noticeably on Joni's guitar, and all told Song To A Seagull is just a little muddier sonically. Rothchild helps bring Joni's voice and instruments even closer to the listener. Her already superb instrumental skills sound even better as a result, and we can thank Rothchild's production for this.

Whilst Song To A Seagull had a very little bit of piano on 'Night In The City', Clouds is entirely given over to stringed instruments, predominantly guitar, but also dulcimer, and perhaps others, like zither and mandolin. 'Tin Angel' starts the album, and it's a very strong opener. Despite lines such as "In a Bleeker Street café, I found someone to love today", it sounds more like a threnody or elegy than a celebration of new-found love. But that's Joni for you! This only serves to make the striking contrast with the next song even starker. This next song, 'Chelsea Morning', is the first of her more famous numbers, and is the embodiment of joyful simplicity. But it's still Joni, so she plays it in an unusual tuning. The lyrics are fabulous, here's a small sample:

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning
And the first thing that I saw
Was the sun through yellow curtains
And a rainbow on the wall *
Blue, red, green and gold to welcome you
Crimson crystal beads to beckon

Oh, won't you stay
We'll put on the day
There's a sun show every second

© 1969; Siquomb Publishing Company

For an explanation of why there's an asterisk (*) in there, go here.

Here's a clip of her playing 'Chelsea Morning'.

Everybody who knows Joni will know 'Cheslea Morning' and 'Both Sides, Now', and both these songs which are not just well-known hits, but small masterpieces. With 'Chelsea Morning' she pulls off an upbeat feel far more convincingly than she did with 'Night In The City' on her debut. 'Both Sides, Now' had been a hit for Judy Collins, before Joni's own career had got off the ground. Indeed, much of the material on her first two albums was already written before she'd released anything commercially in he own right. And until she got her solo career going, she may have appeared destined to be a writer/composer, rather than a performer. I mean no respect to Judy Collins, but compare her version of 'Both Sides Now' with Joni's and Joni's is on an altogether different level. Collins' version is still a good one - it's a great song after all - but it's done just like any other over-produced pop of the day. Mitchell's own rendering is so much more personal, and as a result, timeless.

Mitchell also turns in her first a capella performance, the anti-war song 'The Fiddle And The Drum', which, earnest and well-written as it is, isn't anywhere near as compelling - especially out of it's Viet Nam era US context (one hears the more topical and resonant power it had at the time more potently in some of her live bootleg performances from back in the day) - as the astonishing 'Songs To Ageing Children Come'. Personally I find 'The Pirate of Penance', on her debut, somewhat too self-consciously clever (I still love it, and by anyone else's standards it'd be a masterpiece, but in relation to Joni's own body of work it's less successfull). 'Songs To Ageing Children Come', on the other hand, is not only self-consciously clever, but entirely convincing. Playing in a sonorous and resonant open-tuning (there's a transcription of it here, which I've not tried yet) she harmonises her way through an unusual chord progression. It's certainly very mannered, and I've read many reviews of her albums where people dismiss it. But I think it belongs to her experimental thread, and as an artist this kind of exploration is essential. Sometimes it works, as it does here, and on 'The Circle Game', on Ladies Of The Canyon, or, even more experimentally, on Hejira's 'The Jungle Line', and sometimes, perhaps, it doesn't. But then again, these are perhaps quite subjective judgements. Certainly I think that a sing like 'Songs To Ageing Children Come' pave the way for later songs, like 'The Circle Game', so an experiment expands the palette, and can later be reabsorbed and seem, relatively, more mainstream or 'normal' And that's what great artists do, they expand our consciousness and our perception, they add new faculties to our way of perceiving the world, or rather, they uncover truths we already knew, but hadn't quite articulated so well ourselves.

All the songs on this album are excellent. 'That Song About The Midway', 'The Gallery', and 'I Think I Understand' are all very strong, demonstrating that even the lesser-known numbers aren't filler. Even the songs I'm less keen on, for example the religious/occult themed 'Roses Blue (there's certainly something like a hammer-dulcimer or zither on this one!) are very good. Almost all the lyrics are about personal relationships, and Joni is very articulate on this, her (apparent) favourite subject. But it's also her powers of poetic observation that make the songs so achingly emotionally strong:

Here's the opening two verses of 'Tin Angel':

Varnished weeds in window jars
Tarnished beads on tapestries
Kept in satin boxes are
Reflections of love’s memories

Letters from across the seas
Roses dipped in sealing wax
Valentines and maple leaves
Tucked into a paperback

© 1969; Siquomb Publishing Company

And she also gets pretty philosophical. Here's the whole of 'I Think I Understand':

I Think I Understand

Daylight falls upon the path, the forest falls behind
Today I am not prey to dark uncertainty
The shadow trembles in its wrath, I've robbed its blackness blind
And tasted sunlight as my fear came clear to me

I think I understand
Fear is like a wilderland
Stepping stones or sinking sand

Now the way leads to the hills, above the steeple's chime
Below me sleepy rooftops round the harbor
It's there I'll take my thirsty fill of friendship over wine
Forgetting fear but never disregarding her

Oh, I think I understand
Fear is like a wilderland
Stepping stones and sinking sand

Sometimes voices in the night will call me back again
Back along the pathway of a troubled mind
When forests rise to block the light that keeps a traveler sane
I'll challenge them with flashes from a brighter time

Oh, I think I understand
Fear is like a wilderland
Stepping stones or sinking sand

That's some pretty heavy stuff, and certainly not candyfloss pop! And then there are the cosmic ruminations of 'Songs To Ageing Children Come'. Some might think this sort of thing pretentious. Personally I think it's profound, and it really speaks to me. For every insightful and articulate Joni there are legions of mindless pop-tarts dealing out oceans of inane trivia. give me a drop of Joni any time:

Songs To Ageing Children Come

Through the windless wells of wonder
By the throbbing light machine
In a tea leaf trance or under
Orders from the king and queen

Songs to aging children come
Aging children, I am one

People hurry by so quickly
Don't they hear the melodies
In the chiming and the clicking
And the laughing harmonies

Songs to aging children come
Aging children, I am one

Some come dark and strange like dying
Crows and ravens whistling
Lines of weeping, strings of crying
So much said in listening

Songs to aging children come
Aging children, I am one

Does the moon play only silver
When it strums the galaxy
Dying roses will they will their
Perfumed rhapsodies to me

Songs to aging children come
This is one

© 1969; Siquomb Publishing Company

Hey Joni (as Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo memorably sang on Daydream Nation), I certainly 'hear the melodies in the chiming and the clicking and the laughing harmonies'. She certainly is "a beautiful mental jukebox"!

The album ends with Joni's aforementioned rendition of her own classic 'Both Sides Now', and rather than Judy Collins' perfectly good but rather dated version, Joni's recording is a true timeless classic. And what a way to end an album! Here's a great version of her playing the song live at '2nd frets', in 1966, in which she tells how the idea for the song was born whilst reading Henderson The Rain King, a book by Saul Bellow. The album version is better, actually, but hearing her sing it live, and tell the story of how it came into being is just wonderful.

Here are the words:

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I've looked at clouds * that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I've looked at clouds from both sides now

From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all

Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As ev'ry fairy tale comes real
I've looked at love that way

But now it's just another show
You leave 'em laughing when you go
And if you care, don't let them know
Don't give yourself away

I've looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It's love's illusions I recall
I really don't know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say "I love you" right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I've looked at life that way

But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I've changed
Well something's lost, but something's gained
In living every day

I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all
I've looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all

© 1969; Siquomb Publishing Company


Henry Lewy - Engineer
Joni Mitchell - Cover Art, Guitar, Producer, Vocals
Paul Rothchild - Producer
Ed Thrasher - Art Direction

Allmusic also credits Stephen Stills (allegedly on bass and guitar, but I can't hear any!), nor do I hear any keyboards, also credited to Mitchell by the credits page. One thing that they certainly get right is that it's a "stark stunner", although I don't think it's so much the "great leap forward" David Cleary calls it. Song To A seagull is a brilliant start, and Clouds is a fantastic development.

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