Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Joni's Screenplays

With the 50th anniversary of Joni Mitchell's Ladies of the Canyon upon us, I've been listening to the album a lot when ordinarily I’d pass it by for Blue, Court and Spark or Hejira. It’s more an occasional listen. But listening through my headphones late at night, I got a greater sense of the LP and a better sense of Joni as a musician. She portrays a feather-like touch at the piano, but particularly with her off-tuned, loose-stringed guitar. There is nothing quite like it on record. Here, as well, we get the first sense of Joni’s leaning toward the fusion jazz of subsequent LPs. It's the last real sense we get of Joni as a musician as well as a song stylist (place rebuttal here).
But that's not what is so striking. Instead, the lyrics of the LP shine as mini screenplays. "Morning Morgantown" is setting the way Tennessee Williams wrote setting into his plays; like a storyboard for the day. And then the story comes to life with "For Free," a cinematic vignette just aching for adaptation. One is swept away as a character within the motif, in nearly every songscape; the listener is there with the songstress, walking down the canyon road (lovely, ideally), or with ennui. "You could have been more, than a name on the door, on the 33rd floor in the air," she sings on "The Arrangement." That air, of course, again reflected in the iconic "Woodstock," as she says more optimistically, "I have come here to lose the smog, and I feel myself a cog in something turning." (Those marvelous inner rhymes are what separate her poetry from merely the confessional.) One cannot help but tie those tracks together when, again in "The Arrangement," she writes with impossibly hopeful caution, "While you still have time, you could get away and find a better life." Who would have thought, just a few years before, that anyone in the utopia of mid-century America, would want to get away from it all, or could?
This is the first of Joni's essential canon, from Ladies through Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, that core of LPs that establishes Mitchell as the premier singer/songwriter of her era (or any other), and it hasn't, like a good screenplay, aged a bit over these 50 years.

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