by Zane Badawi
art by Olive Polk and Eliza Youngman
[originally published May 20, 2022]
I have a tendency to latch onto musicians and listen to them almost exclusively for weeks or, if I have a real affinity for them, months at a time, which has led to some questionable phases of musical obsession, including but not limited to a Fall Out Boy phase, a Panic! at the Disco phase, and entire eras of the Beatles and Nick Drake, which very often overlapped. I even spent a whole year thinking Pink Floyd was the greatest thing to ever happen to music. My point is, when I get into a musician or group, I really get into them – no dillydallying, no tiptoeing around. It’s either all or nothing for me. My latest obsession is Joni Mitchell, the singer-songwriter icon whose unique guitar tunings are almost as numerous as her songs themselves. Her name often gets lumped in with the likes of folk revivalists such as Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, and I think that’s a damn shame. With all due respect to those giants of the industry, Joni Mitchell is not like them. My thoughts about her and her music have been brewing in my head for a while now, so, rather than boring my poor girlfriend with random garbage she doesn’t care about, I’m spreading them out here.
The first thing that struck me when I started listening to Mitchell was the variable nature of her style. She wrote some ridiculously catchy, groovy, upbeat songs, like “Don’t Interrupt the Sorrow” and “Raised on Robbery,” which capture many aspects of the human experience, from youthful romance (“In France They Kiss on Main Street”) to longing for home (“California”). But, in each album, these bright songs shared the stage with melancholic piano compositions, like “River,” or frenzied, experimental soundscapes, like “The Jungle Line.” That’s the great thing about her catalog; she never stays on one idea for long. She hops from place to place, from style to style, from guitar to piano to dulcimer, all the while penning captivating lyrics that somehow manage to match her beautiful instrumentals in terms of quality. It’s not every day, or even every decade, that we see someone who is so outstanding both lyrically and sonically, someone who is as competent in poetry as they are in musicianship – but Joni is the exception, and she is one hell of a wild exception. Better yet, her voice is something incredible. Many of her songs’ vocals include sharp turns in pitch direction, opera-like vibrato, and ridiculously broad range, all of which she pulls off with ease.
Anyway, that’s enough talk about what Joni Mitchell could do; let’s discuss what she did do. I’ll just come right out and say it: I think her output from Blue to Hejira (For the Roses, Court and Spark, and The Hissing of Summer Lawns between them) is a perfect five-album run, with each having its own distinct aura while maintaining a perfect assortment of styles. I have plenty to say about For the Roses and The Hissing of Summer Lawns, but I’ll just focus on Blue, Court and Spark, and Hejira here for the sake of (a bit of) brevity.
Blue speaks almost exclusively about love and loss, and it paints a bleak but hopeful picture of life in which sadness is ever-present but doesn’t tend to last long – and how could it when Joni has such a knack for writing heart-warming songs? Love can take many forms in this context, such as a mother’s love for her child, or that joyous feeling that comes with being in an intimate relationship with someone you can’t get enough of. Loss, on the other hand, is presented as a part of and, at the same time, the antithesis of love – losing the spark you once had with a lover, or losing a child because you don’t have the means to care for them.
Court and Spark is full of lush, rich, and often jazzy tracks that feel deeply personal. They feature ‘me’s and ‘you’s and everyday occurrences like train rides and career qualms that manage to entertain the listener with relatable lyrics and ear-catching stories, metaphors, and imagery. This was somewhat of a refrain from the confessional songwriting Joni had gotten used to in her previous albums, more focused on painting landscapes than conveying ideas. Even so, Mitchell has a lot to say, and there are plenty of themes to be found throughout the eleven tracks, from feeling misunderstood to longing for love in a lopsided relationship.
Hejira feels like a haphazard road trip, spurred on by a heartbreak so profound you can’t help but up and leave. Meditations on aimlessness and Joni’s sense of self give context to the instruments that are just bare enough to deliver a lonely and, at times, uneasy tone. This album features some of Joni’s most powerful songs; whether she’s reminiscing to a friend-turned-acquaintance or describing the isolation of her lonely travels, her words leave a mark on you that does not quickly fade. I truly think Hejira is Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece; it perfectly captures everything that makes her so great. Her poetry, singing, instrumental work, and general atmosphere-building all culminate to create something much more than the sum of its parts.
I’m writing about Mitchell’s music here because I want to spell out how much I love and respect the art she created. In an article that will be over a year old by the time this is published, Jeff Slate made his opinion known that the likes of Joni Mitchell would be forgotten by history, a mere footnote compared to Dylan and the Beatles, if she’s even that lucky. But I think Slate is as wrong as he can be. Take Harry Styles for instance: he performed a fantastic and faithful cover of Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” on BBC Radio 2, and he even stated that he was “in a pretty big Joni hole” while writing his second studio album, Fine Line. I think being a major inspiration for one of this generation’s most prominent songwriters and pop stars warrants a bit more than a footnote, but that isn’t really the point. Joni Mitchell will not be remembered because of who she inspired, but how she inspired them. She very well may (and definitely should) be considered among the most important songwriters of the twentieth century in a few decades’ time – a marvelous and idiosyncratic example of just how great pop music can be. And that isn’t to say that Joni Mitchell is underrated by any means; she is already one of the most celebrated singer-songwriters to ever pick up a guitar, and the amount of praise Blue receives from critics is ridiculous (she has other albums, guys). Still, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say most of the spotlight is taken up by other artists, people who were more immediately influential and could be seen as products of their time, Dylan foremost among them.
Now, I’m as much a fan of Dylan as anyone who cares about twentieth-century pop music, and maybe even a little more than that. I mean, my high school senior quote was a Bob Dylan lyric, which, yes, I absolutely regret choosing. But despite all my love for ol’ Bobby Folksinger, I have to admit his songwriting can get a bit repetitive after a while. The five-or-so-chord songs that make up a huge chunk of his discography, while featuring some incredible lyrics, can get pretty damn uninteresting for people craving more than just profound writing. I don’t think that’s really a criticism, it’s more of an observation on his style; he writes songs that are more revered for their words than their music. He’s a great poet and an above-average musician – that’s not a sin. But what is a sin is the fact that he so massively overshadows his contemporaries. Artists like Neil Young, Jim Croce, Bert Jansch, Paul Simon, and, yes, Joni Mitchell just can’t seem to reach the legendary status that Dylan has achieved. But I think all of these artists, especially Joni Mitchell (I don’t know if you can tell but I kinda like her stuff), deserve as much credit as, if not more credit than, Bob Dylan.
That’s why I’m writing this down. I have over 1,300 words at this point, all of which I’ve written during midterms week. I am so passionate about this that I really can’t help but spill all of my thoughts onto paper, even if it means I’m doing this instead of studying. Make no mistake, this is no objective review of Joni Mitchell’s catalog, this is a huge fan gushing over her music because he has too much time on his hands. I absolutely adore everything about her music and the more I listen, the more I find to love. It’s a silly thing, but her music gives me something to gush about. I feel like being a college student has removed a lot of passion from the things that I once did solely because I liked to do them. The stress of keeping up appearances and maintaining my GPA is now balanced out by me turning my focus as often as I can to the things that I love, which is how this article came to be. Hopefully, it inspires you to listen to Joni’s music, but if it doesn’t, I hope it at least inspires you to rediscover something that you love and just spend some time gushing over it. Admire it, enjoy it, and talk about how much you love it to anyone who will listen – I bet they’ll be happy to hear about your passion.