Classic Music Review: Clouds by Joni Mitchell

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If you’re in the mood for melody, intelligent lyrics and self-reflection, click to buy.

Although other critics have expressed a strong preference for Blue, ranking it not only the best Joni Mitchell album of her folk-rock period but her best album ever, I find Blue rather tedious and dated. Blue was the point in time when she began to adopt the stance of spokesperson for the Woodstock Generation, peppering songs like “California” and “Carey” with faddish language referring to pigs and the period cliché “out of sight.” I’ve filed Blue in the same folder where you can find Eric Burdon’s “San Franciscan Nights” (which also contains the ultimate oxymoron, “warm San Franciscan night”) and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, who ruined a perfectly lovely song with the soul-cringing word “groovy.”

Joni finally got over it when she began exploring jazz and music from other cultures, and I strongly prefer the period of The Hissing of Summer Lawns to Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (Hejira remains my personal favorite). Clouds is my favorite from the folk/folk-rock period: a blessedly simple, unpretentious record that displays her natural and still-developing talent as a songwriter.

I chose to review Clouds because it’s more relevant to my life right now—most of the songs are about a young woman in flux, trying to figure out what life is all about. Having changed my country of residence, lived at three different addresses and started a new job—all in the last six months—I think I qualify as fluxed. I feel like I’m in a fast-flowing river where I can’t quite touch bottom and give myself some sense of stability. I’ve found that the songs on Clouds express the self-doubt, the mood swings and the instinctual confusion I’m feeling because my routines and rhythms have been disrupted. And while I’ve always tended to be a thinker as opposed to a feeler, I tend to be a think-in-the-moment, active thinker who tends to skip self-reflection before moving on to the next thing. This is why I’ve been attracted to Clouds lately: its mood and content are deeply reflective, allowing me to downshift, slow down and gain some perspective on all the change I’ve experienced.

The reflective mood of the album is firmly established in the tone and theme of the opening track, “Tin Angel.” Opening with only the sound of single acoustic guitar notes, the music shifts to unusual chords—ninths and sustained seconds—chords that establish a separation from expectations and create a sense of detachment from the humdrum of daily life. The lyrics sing of mementos that are “reflections of love’s memories,” the little souvenirs we keep in boxes to help us recall past feelings and, perhaps, past failures. While such physical reminders of existence are an endangered species in our digital world, “Tin Angel” reminds us that the tactile and olfactory experiences can make such past experiences seem more alive (I still have a precious little box where you can find odd things like subway tokens, obsolete currency and a small wooden whistle given to me by a Ukrainian woman I met in Vienna). More important to the purpose of the song is that these trinkets from the past fulfill a need during times of sadness, reminding us that we were once happy, once loved. Hence the chorus, “Guess I’ll throw them all away/I found someone to love today.” What is so wonderful about Joni Mitchell at her best is that she is rarely one-dimensional; in this case, the love she has found is a risky proposition: “Not a golden prince who’s come/Through columbines and wizardry/To talk of castles in the sun.” She further describes him as having a “sorrow in his eyes,” and wonders “What will happen if I try/To place another heart in him.” The song ends ambiguously, never describing the consummation of the relationship. This is what is so beautiful about “Tin Angel”—it leaves you on the knife-edge of risk, and too often, despite our inherent loneliness, we feel that love represents the greatest risk of all.

Unfortunately, the mood dissipates with the far too sweet “Chelsea Morning,” a song about which Joni Mitchell said, “I don’t think of it as part of my best work.” It’s not, and the lines “And the sun poured in like butterscotch/And stuck to all my senses” make me cringe as if I’d just eaten a mouthful of Duncan Hines Cherry Chip Cake (a horrid concoction I once tasted at a St. Philip’s church bazaar when I was growing up in Noe Valley). Fortunately, it’s a brief departure into youthful exuberance, for she quickly returns to nascent womanhood with “I Don’t Know Where I Stand.” Echoing the theme of love and risk we heard in “Tin Angel,” the song starts as if she’s just left the saccharine experience of her Chelsea room where she was “braiding wild flowers and leaves in my hair,” to find her exuberance collapsing with the realization that love involves risk and the possibility of deep pain. In this situation, she wants to tell someone “I love you” but doesn’t know where she stands with that someone. I’ve always found it interesting that fear of rejection often blocks us from taking action to move a relationship forward, because it’s a paradox: the relationship can’t go forward unless we make the move, but our paralysis prevents us from the possibility of having the very thing we want. The rationalizations for inaction are plentiful, and we take advantage of every single one to avoid having to face the possibility that the person of interest may not be interested:

Telephone, even the sound of your voice is still new

All alone in California and talking to you

And feeling too foolish and strange to say the words that I had planned

I guess it’s too early, ’cause I don’t know where I stand

“That Song About the Midway” is more of a character sketch than a relationship song, though the intensity with which the narrator follows the intriguing character suggests that she believes there’s something elusive and attractive about this particular soul. It is said that the song is about Leonard Cohen, and the “midway” is symbolic of the life of the traveling musician, of searching for the lucky break and becoming tired of it all. Perhaps, but I’ve always found that once I hear that a famous person wrote such and such song about another famous person, the experience is similar to glancing at the cover of People magazine in the checkout stand (haven’t done that in a while!) and finding out who’s cheating on whom. Who gives a shit? The knowledge reduces the potential universal appeal of the song, trivializing it by turning into a secret code for an exclusive club. If I step back from that bias, I would say “That Song About the Midway” has some interesting imagery but there are other more moving songs on Clouds.

“Roses Blue,” is one of those. This sketch is about a woman who has found alt-religion (“She’s gotten to mysterious devotions/She’s gotten to the zodiac and zen/She’s gotten into tarot cards and potions.”) It would be out of character for 60’s child Joni Mitchell to condemn someone who had such hip beliefs, and she doesn’t. The real problem is what every religion does to a true believer—it turns a potentially nice person into a flaming asshole:

She’s laying her religion on her friends

On her friends, on her friends

Friends who come to ask her for their future

Friends who come to find they can’t be friends

Because of signs and seasons that don’t suit her

She’ll prophesy your death, she won’t say when

Won’t say when, won’t say when

When all the black cards come you cannot barter

No, when all your stars are stacked you cannot win

She’ll shake her head and treat you like a martyr

It is her blackest spell she puts you in

Puts you in, puts you in.

This song triggers another one of my biases, and in my role as music reviewer, I have the obligation to disclose such biases. Here it is: if I met the genie in the lamp and he gave me my three wishes, the first two would have to do with certain sexual fantasies and the third would be to order the genie to abolish all forms of religion on earth and wipe the memories of every person on the planet of any religious influence. Religion has caused more pain, death and separation than any single force in human history, and frankly, the benefit of something as ephemeral as faith hardly compensates for the millions and millions of lives that have been cut short or diminished by the violence and oppression that religion generates. While you may not agree with my views, it does explain the anguished attachment I have to this song: Rose’s crime is not religion, but what she has allowed religion to do to her—cut her off from human friendship by giving her the illusion that arcane knowledge entitles her to separate herself from the unbelievers. I have experienced people like Rose far too often: the glazed look of distant disdain, the pity in the voice as she tells you how limited you are for not buying her shit . . . the works. “Roses Blue” gives me both the creeps and a sense of sadness that I have to accept that there are people on this earth to whom I will never be close, for there’s no way I can break through the religious plexiglass and relate to them as equals. In that sense, the song is a microcosm of the larger sorrow that religion continues to bring to our world today.

The comment box is down below for those of you who want to condemn me to the everlasting fires of hell.

“The Gallery” features one of the loveliest pure melodies on the entire album, supported by equally beautiful harmonies. It is a tale about a woman who admires a man’s paintings then temporarily becomes the painted object until another takes her place. Sadly, she opts for self-immolation and stays to care for his house, dusting portraits and collecting mail from other female admirers. The power of the song comes from the recognition that the value of women in our society is directly related to our fleeting beauty:

I gave you all my pretty years

Then we began to weather

And I was left to winter here

While you went west for pleasure

I should say, “American society,’ for in France, I’ve seen women twice my age who still have “the look” and continue to turn heads. Age is so overrated as a variable in sexual desire; people who feel that way have allowed themselves to be manipulated by Madison Avenue’s definitions of beauty. Look: I intend to be as hot and horny at sixty-four as I am a thirty-two and baby, I will have some serious fucking lessons to share at that point in my life!

Back to our story—“I Think I Understand” has more of the feel of “Tin Angel,” but deals somewhat inadequately with the ongoing battle against fear. It’s followed by one of my least favorite Joni Mitchell songs, “Songs to Aging Children Come,” where chromatic chords and thirds create harmonies I find rather annoying. I cheer her for her willingness to experiment, recognize that some experiments yield less satisfactory results than others and forgive her for irritating me.

The last two songs on Clouds easily make up for the less effective numbers, and both have deep resonance at this time in my life. The first, “The Fiddle and the Drum,” is Joni’s message to an America that at the time chose to embroil itself in the absurd conflict we know as The Vietnam War. I don’t think Americans fully appreciate how frightening America seems to many of the people in the world—Americans tend to accept violence as one of the inevitable prices one pays for living in a so-called “free society,” and because they view the rest of the world with deep suspicion and distrust, they tend to be closed to any foreign feedback. One of the primary reasons I chose to leave America had to do with its culture of violence—its worship of guns and its veneration of the military. In “The Fiddle and the Drum,” our Canadian friend Joni Mitchell mourns the choice that Americans have made “to trade the handshake for the fist,” something that may be even more relevant today in the era of “The American Empire” than it did the Cold War years of Vietnam when at least the evil Russians were around to take some of the heat. The dynamic is still the same, though: fuck the world, we’ll do whatever the fuck we want because we’re Americans and we’re the best fucking country in the world, so fuck you. Such a tragic perspective! Such a waste of human potential and human life!

And so once again

Oh, America my friend

And so once again

You are fighting us all

And when we ask you why

You raise your sticks and cry and we fall

Oh, my friend

How did you come

To trade the fiddle for the drum

You say we have turned

Like the enemies you’ve earned

But we can remember

All the good things you are

And so we ask you please

Can we help you find the peace and the star

Oh my friend

We have all come

To fear the beating of your drum

Joni sings “The Fiddle and the Drum” a capella, and while her version doesn’t quite match June Tabor’s cover (no one sings anti-war songs as powerfully as June Tabor), her performance is still compelling:

Before the release of Clouds, Judy Collins had a major pop chart hit with “Both Sides Now.” I am very thankful that Joni Mitchell decided to record the song herself and rescue its reputation. Judy Collins’ version is a mechanical, lifeless, overproduced piece of crap that sucks all the emotion and complexity from the song, making it sound like background music for Disneyland. Joni Mitchell’s version, stripped down to guitar and voice, is masterpiece of vocal and rhythmic dynamics that sounds blessedly more human than machine.

“Both Sides Now” is a song about what Blake called “contraries.” As he so wisely wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.” Thematically, this brings us full circle in Clouds, for “Tin Angel” opens the album with the experience of living on the knife’s edge between polar opposites. The learning experience described in “Both Sides Now” is that because truth is something we perceive differently depending on mood and circumstances, the “real truth” can only be found in that no-man’s land between the two sides. The song is also linked to the other polar dynamic in Clouds—the need for love and the risk of loving:

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

She reaffirms the importance of this theme in the opening lines to the final verse, “Tears and fears and feeling proud/To say ‘I love you’ right out loud.” Interestingly, she also links our discovery of love with our discovery of self, and with the inevitable rejection we face when we fail to meet the expectations of friends who were comfortable with the expired version:

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.

While that final couplet sounds cold, it is a reality of life: if you grow and change, you will shed people who refuse to accept the person you have chosen to become. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve learned that lesson: to be different is to face exclusion. I’ve lost nearly all of my childhood and high school friends, in part because of my sexual preferences, and in part because I am what people call a “strong woman.” I find that last label very curious, not only for its latent sexism, but because I never consciously established a goal to become a “strong woman.” All I did was try to become the person inside. I’ve survived all the rejection not because of inner strength, but because of the illogic of rejection. If you’re going to reject me because I like men and women, or because I have a relatively strong sense of self, that’s your fucking problem. Why resent someone because they’ve made the choices they had to make to be themselves? My attitude is exactly as expressed by Joni Mitchell: “Well, something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.” I’m not going to stop growing simply because someone I care about doesn’t want me to grow. That’s silly!

As I’m writing this, my suitcases are lined up at the door for a two-week business trip through eastern Europe. Although I usually hate business trips, I’m looking forward to spending some time in places I’ve never visited, which always helps me sharpen my perspective on life. I have several important life issues to consider, ranging from how I feel about having a big job and whether or not I’m going to close this blog after all. In the past few weeks, I’ve oscillated between extremes on both issues and have lived in a state of confusion. I don’t mind some ambiguity, but this is ridiculous. I need to figure out who I am and what I want in a space where I can be free of the expectations of others.

In that sense, I couldn’t have selected a better album to review right now, for Clouds is an exercise in self-reflection that encourages its listeners to do the same. This is a rare achievement, for many so-called self-reflective albums come across as massive exercises in ego-indulgence. That’s not true with Clouds: here Joni Mitchell expresses the ambiguity of becoming and shares her sense of uncertainty and her feelings of vulnerability without claiming she has found all the answers. I tend to trust people who don’t have the answers more than I trust know-it-alls, because I’m fully aware that I don’t have all the answers and I never will. I also trust and admire people who have reinvented and rediscovered themselves throughout their lives, and Joni Mitchell has certainly done that in her long and rich career in the arts. I hope that the combined experience of re-engaging with Clouds and a set of new experiences will help me clarify who I am and who I am becoming at this wonderfully complex stage of my life.

p. s. Joni Mitchell’s website is the fulfillment of my vision of what a proper music library should be. Full lyrics, insights, tablature and sometimes even piano scores. Worth the trip!

5 responses

  1. […] Joni Mitchell, Clouds […]

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  2. Thanks for another thought-provoking review. I’m not a big Joni Mitchell fan – in fact I thought the Judy Collins version of Clouds was Joni. Sorry for my ignorance – the acoustic clip you included is way, way better (way, way, way better, actually).

    Good luck with all of your decisions. Wishing you the best, no matter what.

    Are you up for a strange idea? I’ve thought about your comment about baseball writing and women. Have you considered fiction? I’ve always thought baseball is the one professional sport where a talented woman could hold her own with men (I’ll leave the double-entendres to you!). For a number of reasons, I think you could take that premise and produce something out of the ordinary and authentic, on your own terms.

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    1. Ha! I don’t even think of myself as a writer, much less a fiction writer. Robert Morrow suggested that, too, and I just laughed. I’m not imaginative enough to pull off fiction.

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      1. I’m really surprised by your response. You know yourself best, but I wonder if you’re taking a limited look at your talents. If you come up with a concept you are passionate about and define some compelling characters, you’d be surprised how much almost writes itself. The reviews you are passionate about have flowed most easily, right? And I couldn’t see you creating a boring protagonist, really.

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        1. Perhaps, but I’ve never considered myself a particularly creative person and I think I’m a very average writer. I think my creativity is the in-the-moment, spontaneous type; I’ve never really done anything artistic like paint, write poetry or compose music, and I’ve never written much of anything until this blog came about. I’m more of a learner and doer than a creator, unless you count sex as an art form (which I do).

          And given that a novel would be a major effort with an infinitesimal chance of ever getting noticed, whether published or self-published (and the market is flooded with millions of those now), I’d probably feel worse than I do about failing to meet my goals for the blog.

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