Joni's third album starts with the familiar duo of guitar and vocals, sounding, initially at any rate, very much like her first two records. 'Morning Morgantown', is an evocative, descriptive song, and finds Joni sounding elfin and youthful as she sings "The merchants roll their awnings down / The milk-trucks make their morning rounds". But then piano steals quickly into the mix, as do subtle percussive sounds, already heralding developments which, by the end of the album, make this a real departure from her previously super-minimalist soundscape.
Track two, 'For Free', is newer territory yet, being the first fully fledged piano-based song to appear in her recorded catalogue. It's also the first time we hear Joni sounding self-conscious, guilty even perhaps, about her status in the 'music biz', a theme whose implications she would explore ever more as her career developed. And it also anticipates the rather bleakly melancholy vibe, which, coupled with her distinctive touch on the piano, here taking form as a rolling triplet-based feel, which would be such a characteristic part first really big album sales-wise, the justly lauded and famous 'Blue' album.
'Conversation' adds subtle brushwork drumming to Joni's stealthily expanding palette, also adding recorder and flute ('For Free' already having brought in clarinet) to her own ebullient harmony vocals, and us the first time she sounds a bit catty: jealous of another ladies' man she writes scornfully of her rival "she speaks in sorry sentences, miraculous repentences, I don't believe her"!
Track four, the title track, sounds melodically and harmonically very like earlier songs, but the degree of maturity and sophistication she's attained by this stage is staggering. It's also wonderful for being a celebration of womankind. What a great subject for a song! Clearly showing that she's more than a narrator or purveyor of self-indulgent confessional emotional catharsis, she celebrates a gaggle of her female Laurel Canyon companions. How wonderfully unlike the self-aggrandisement of the seemingly never-ending tides of successive 'me-generation' style rappers and pop tarts this is: these ladies won't pop a cap I'm yo' ass, or diss you cuz you aint got enuf bling or rep or whatever, they'll perhaps bake you some brownies instead. And any song where the lyricist celebrates chubby kids and cats - "all are fat, and none are thin" - is alright with me. Go Joni!
'Willy' presages the piano-centric vibes of Blue, and it's beautiful, but like Blue, it's so shot through with, well, blue. The melancholy edge to much of Joni's music is the aspect I find simultaneously alluring, compelling, and disturbingly narcotic.
The intro to track six hints at things to come, from Hejira to Hissing Lawns and Paprika Lawns. Called the arrangement, the title is clever for not just describing the lyrical content, but also the side of Joni that is pure composer. It's not exactly 'classical' music, but it's certainly boy just pop either. The chord she ends with is sublime, as are the challenging lyrics: 'you could've been more' she admonishes, over a chord that is neither pop, classical, jazz or any other 'type', it's pure music, sound, chemistry, humanity... genius!
The back-to-back brilliance of Chelsea Morning and Woodstock illustrate Joni's effortless seeming excellence: one minute she's, pardon the phrase, tossing off an upbeat acoustic 'folksy' ditty, whose darker message - "pave paradise, put up a parking lot" - seeps through despite the ebullient harmonies and the slightly forced sounding laughter as she delivers the casually brilliant sign off, and the next she's looking to her electric future as she tinkles on (oops, sorry again) an electric piano. Again, whilst she celebrates the blissful innocent apotheosis of the flower power generation at Yasgur's Farm it's already elegaic, and despite the optimism of those times Joni still locates us firmly outside paradise - "we've got to get ourselves back to the garden."
And all this leads to the masterpiece that is 'The Circle Game'. Not amongst her most famous songs, it's nevertheless amongst her best (mind you, her catalogue is littered with jewels). Where STAC felt self-conscious, TCG feels totally natural and uncontrived, and yet STAC kind of paved the way, preparing the ground, if you like.
Joni's first two albums already marked her out as a new and brilliant voice in modern music, and with each new recording she just seemed to blossom and grow. If you don't already own this album, you really have to buy it. And yes, I know, Joni's rich enough to not need your dollar (and often sounds more than a little bitter these days, perhaps making her Starbucks deal strangely appropriate). But art this good deserves recognition and reward, all the way down the line.