Joni Mitchell Essay - Critical Essays

Mitchell, Joni


Joni Mitchell 1943–

(Born Roberta Joan Anderson) Canadian songwriter and musician. One of the foremost folk artists of the 1960s, Mitchell has made the transition to the 1970s with music that now incorporates forms of pop, rock, and jazz. Her themes, however, have remained the same—love and the difficulties of maintaining a loving relationship, loneliness, and the pressures of stardom. Mitchell, who taught herself guitar with a Pete Seeger instruction record, performed in coffeehouses in Toronto, Detroit, and, finally, New York in the early 1960s. Her success as a songwriter skyrocketed when "The Circle Game" and "Both Sides Now" were recorded by established folk artists Tom Rush and Judy Collins. It was not until the release of her first album, Songs to a Seagull, however, that she became known outside musical circles and achieved recognition as a performer. Her songs are often autobiographical, reflecting not only her intriguing personal life, but the sentiments of women living in times of changing roles. Most critics have noticed a definite maturation in Mitchell's lyrics; she has gone from the simple but pleasant sentiments of "Both Sides Now" to songs like "Coyote," which are replete with ambiguity and exhibit a sense of humor that was not evident in earlier works. Her experimentation with rock and jazz in recent years has destroyed her somewhat stereotyped image as the symbolic "Woodstock generation" folksinger, and has made her work difficult to classify. This has brought varying reactions from both fans and critics, who are unsure of the direction and success of this synthesis. As an innovative musician, she is often considered the female counterpart of Bob Dylan, both in creativity and influence.

Karl Dallas

["Songs to a Seagull"] is one of the few [albums] I can think of (the others that spring to mind are "Sgt. Pepper" and the [album by the] Mothers of Invention) which successfully hangs together as a complete whole….

Because Joni Mitchell was originally a painter … the things that stick in the mind from her songs are all visual. The king she lost, painting the pastel walls of her home brown thinking of ladies in gingham while she is a girl dressed in leather….

And all through this album, the seagull that wheels above you cries, and then is suddenly gone.

I think Joni Mitchell is that seagull.

Karl Dallas, "Joni, The Seagull from Saskatoon," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), September 28, 1968, p. 26.

Ellen Sander

Joni Mitchell is an individual who defies conceptualization, and in that defiance comes into her own brilliantly. Her second album, Clouds …, is one of the most lyrical, skillful, and utterly distinctive presentations of great talent that has ever had to stand on its own. A superlative song writer, Miss Mitchell is fascinated with womanhood. Her songs explore the joys and travails of being loved and unloved, of looking at the world through the eyes of a female.

Clouds shows considerable growth and improvement over her first album; the songs are stronger, the changes braver, her voice more flexible and relaxed. While the first album seemed understated, Clouds, which does not have any accompaniment other than that which the artist herself supplies, is a stronger, more personal effort, fuller and richer for what she has put into the songs. (pp. 51, 57)

Ellen Sander, in Saturday Review (© 1969 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 26, 1969.

Susan Donoghue

[Clouds] is a whole lot more than an exercise in slickness. Second albums have a tendency to lean heavily on promotion after an unknown "hot" property has shot his load on his debut LP, but this is not the case with Miss Mitchell. If it is possible to become an "old pro" between first and second albums, she has done it. Clouds is not slick, it is just smooth, and it is a joy to hear the composer's touch go into those numbers we've heard as Judy Collins' concert staples Chelsea Morning and The Midway Song. There is an undeniable power to the sort of "production numbers" these two songs become in a Collins concert, but there is an equally charming quality to Joni Mitchell's delivery of them as sort of tremulous love-confessions. But it would be hard to do anything wrong with the sort of poetry that Miss Mitchell produces. She has a fantastic eye (a "painter's eye", I guess, 'scuse the expression) for combining real, sensual imagery with special, and personal, pleading….

All of Joni Mitchell's songs are gentle, and even the one protest song on the album, The Fiddle and the Drum, seems to chide gently, rather than "protest". There's not a single bad apple in the Clouds barrel, including her best-known song, Both Sides Now, which is new all over again when sung by its mother. (pp. 42-3)

Susan Donoghue, in Jazz & Pop (© 1969 by Jazz Press Inc.; reprinted by permission of the author), September, 1969.

Jacoba Atlas

Joni Mitchell is a poet whose time has come. Because she uses the vehicle of music, her words and thoughts reach out to countless minds. With Joni, there is no restriction of reading or schooling; she sings her poetry and brings it to the people…. Joni has emerged as a major force in music. Her songs, once the exclusive property of a few, have become the catchword of many….

Her songs are reflections of a very feminine way of looking at life. All too seldom in music, and indeed in any art form, is the female view of the world set down. Joni does just that.

One critic suggested that women think in a complicated manner and speak in simple terms. This could certainly be said of Joni's material; but her simplicity reveals a sensitivity and awareness that few composers possess today. With phrases like "know that I will know you" and "while she's so busy being free," we are given an entire picture of a woman's mind and heart at work….

Like many poets, Joni insists that her lyrics be worked over until every word is absolutely necessary and cannot be altered….

Her ability to understand and transform has made her almost a legend…. Critics and listeners alike rhapsodise over her songs and her psyche. She is fulfilling something of a "goddess" need in American rock, a woman who is more than a woman; a poet who expresses a full range of emotions without embarrassment.

Her legend is beginning to obscure her work; because she is virtually without competition … she is without comparison. Her work for now, goes almost totally without question, without debate.

Jacoba Atlas, "Joni: Let's Make Life More Romantic," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), June 20, 1970; p. 24.

Sue Donoghue

Ladies of the Canyon, Joni Mitchell's third album, is not aimed at fairly literate ex-folkies who will take anyone's fairly literate word for anything. It is aimed at the world…. [Her] voice is narrating twelve stories of different kinds, and consequently needs the top of its range as much as human emotion does, as much as the actress portraying it does. Well and good, so that's what's going on with the unstructured melodies and occasional falsettos for which I couldn't find a corresponding irony in the lyric (ah, me …). But what about those lyrics? Aren't there fewer of the stunning Mitchell images? Doesn't it seem like only 1966's The Circle Game, of all the cuts, is tied as neatly as expected? Well, the images aren't fewer, she just doesn't have to rely on them as much, and after all, 1966 was tied more neatly than '67, which was tied more neatly than '68—and don't imagine that's irrelevant.

In 1966, we still believed in wrapping things neatly—flourish, finish, applause (usually after the downbeat), three or four rhyming stanzas broken as many times by a catchy chorus. And a "statement by the author." Joni Mitchell has gotten so good that she's transcended all the neat little categories and made an invisible film (for brain-viewing). With the best director's eye, she points us in different directions…. She's acting (superbly) in the stories, voice recounting her part and the other ones. Big...

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Peter Reilly

Joni Mitchell continues to demonstrate that she is not only an actress-singer but a composer of considerable power: her … album "Blue" … is an unqualified success on both counts. It is a collection of what once were called "torch" songs, but Miss Mitchell adds an extra dimension to her "my man's gone now" theme by introducing a spare, satirical element that is sometimes directed at herself, sometimes at her partners….

And, if her songs are based on personal experience, she certainly does seem to have had a rough time of it in the Game of Love…. The subject of My Old Man is apparently given to irregular disappearances, thus causing Joni to collide with the blues and to discover that...

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Lester Bangs

It took a while for a lot of people to get to Joni Mitchell. Listening to her albums was a frustrating experience if you weren't a convert in front. You could tell that Blue, for instance, was an important record and the songs were truly fine, but somehow it seemed almost too personal, too consistently down. Also, her propensity for seemingly cramming every syllable she possibly could into each line became irritating after awhile, at once melodically overcomplex and a conversation style taken to an extreme….

[For the Roses is] the best album Joni Mitchell has ever made and, even beyond the songs themselves, it's a sound record….

Joni takes the riskiest...

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Arthur Schmidt

Most female singer-guitarists in folk and pop genres … are primarily interpreters of songs others—usually men—write. The Canadian Joni Mitchell, often grouped with them, is exceptional however not so much because she is her own composer and lyricist, but because of the persistence with which she has, at her most characteristic, pursued through five record albums the sexual theme she treats with sophistication surprising in a mass artist. Love songs are nothing new, but the love-hate song is probably Mitchell's invention….

Mitchell celebrates the moral virtue of strength—or, rather the collection of qualities once referred to as "character"; her parallel virtue as composer is tight, economic...

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Jon Landau

On first listening, Joni Mitchell's Court And Spark … sounds surprisingly light; by the third or fourth listening, it reveals its underlying tensions. The lyrics lead us through concentric circles that define an almost Zen-like dilemma: The freer the writer becomes, the more unhappy she finds herself; the more she surrenders her freedom, the less willing she is to accept the resulting compromise. Joni Mitchell seems destined to remain in a state of permanent dissatisfaction—always knowing what she would like to do, always more depressed when it's done.

Joni Mitchell has composed few songs of unambivalent feeling. Even her most minimal work suggests a need for change and skepticism about...

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Wayne Robins

Truth is something [Joni Mitchell] sells as well as Ralph Nader, John Wayne, or Guru Maharaj Ji. Unlike Dylan, who sold public truths that inspired social awareness, Joni's truths are private. Most concern The Relationship….

As a result [of her intriguing relationships] her private truths have much to say about the mixed blessings of promiscuity, which may be this era's favorite obsession….

Joni's songs are beachnut California. She sings of canyons rather than fire escapes, of a world that is as attractive as it is repellent to a native New Yorker. How I've learned to tolerate, even appreciate, her "Yin Yang" I don't know, except that maybe what she calls "portrait of a...

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Stephen Holden

With The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell has moved beyond personal confession into the realm of social philosophy. All the characters are American stereotypes who act out socially determined rituals of power and submission in exquisitely described settings. Mitchell's eye for detail is at once so precise and so panoramic that one feels these characters have very little freedom. They belong to the things they own, wear and observe, to the drugs they take and the people they know as much if not more than to themselves. Most are fixed combatants in tableaux, rituals and scenarios that share Mitchell's reflections on feminism.

As might be expected, Mitchell's approach is very cerebral. In...

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Noel Coppage

Joni Mitchell's viewpoint has usually been first-person-singular, with the world seen as an incidental part of the examination of the quandary inside a relationship. In … "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," the viewpoint seems more nearly general, less specific, and the stories she tells collectively yield some truths (or maybe they're only suspicions) that are social as well as personal.

There is still the question of how much romanticism balanced against how much "reality" is good for us, but it is complicated this time out by the irony of what has happened to the settings, the environments—the city has paradoxically become the place primeval, while the country (nowadays the suburbs) has become the...

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Noel Coppage

Sometimes … one does sense a degree of California School of Pointless Insight in [Mitchell's] work. Sometimes I feel I've put myself through all manner of tortuous self-analysis with her and am no closer to knowing what to do about it, and the vehicle of escape—whether it be a big yellow taxi, the pick-up pitch of a fast lady trying to compete with the hockey game in the bar of the Empire Hotel, or a street corner where someone is providing free clarinet music—is not always there when I need it…. Pretentious, some say [of "The Hissing of Summer Lawns"], meaning (I gather) not artistically but intellectually. Others claim that the less serious parts of it are too full of jive—including too much use of...

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Janet Maslin

Understanding the singer songwriter's gift involves tracing a pattern of personal evolution … rather than isolating the most impressive material. Court and Spark (1974) may be Joni Mitchell's finest album, but the continuum that brought her to that point is more exciting than any single effort.

Hindsight helps, of course: when Mitchell made her 1968 recording debut, it would have been difficult to peg her as anything more promising than an obviously gifted but dour and arty poet, more comfortable behind the scenes (supplying material to Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Ian and Sylvia) than she might ever become in the limelight…. But that first record [Songs to a Seagull] now seems...

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Perry Meisel

Despite Joni Mitchell's reputation as a lyricist, the poetic element in her work has been a growing source of embarrassment to many listeners over the years. Less a measure of ignorance than of optimism, Mitchell's verbal pretensions are a product of her innocence—an innocence that seems unwarranted by the crushed hopes her songs discern in everything from urban blight and stardom to motherhood and love. Usually, Mitchell's melodies have been so compelling that her songs stand up on purely musical grounds, at least until … The Hissing of Summer Lawns, which sounded so aimless that it put off many of Joni's oldest fans. It is the poetic/lyrical factor, though, that sustains [Hejira]….


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Ariel Swartley

It is the tug of war between the symbolist and the siren that makes Joni Mitchell's albums alternately alluring and forbidding. On the one hand she is the most ruthlessly analytical member of the music-as-therapy songwriting school, and often her songs seem intent only on making private sense of her own experience. On the other hand, as a public performer, Mitchell wants to be heard and even enjoyed. To that end she conducts a cool flirtation with her audience. Like a Victorian gentlewoman, she seems afraid that we won't respect her if she makes obvious advances. Thus, though Court and Spark showed Mitchell blossoming into accessibility,… The Hissing of Summer Lawns brought back the arcane priestess of...

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Jon Pareles

Somewhere along the way, Mitchell's reverent audiences convinced her that her every thought is profound. Having concentrated on herself for so long. Mitchell's discrimination has eroded; she can't separate out the trivia anymore. Her intimacy has become exhaustive—she tells all, every flicker of ambivalence, every last rationalization, seemingly anything that pops into her head. You feel like you're drowning in her stream of consciousness. Her perceptions of the outside world are clear and neatly expressed—only between her head and heart do things get muddled….

Where she takes on larger concepts, Mitchell over-writes. "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter," a meditation on the divided self, explains...

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Ray Sturgeon

Because the songs are stronger [on Don Juan's Reckless Daughter] the lyrics overflow less. [Joni] builds images like they do in movies, a piece at a time. People in her songs sit around, restless, maybe talking, maybe drinking, maybe looking out of the window. Nobody ever gets up to slug the other guy. She has sent us more love letters, on post cards, from long lost bus rides. More rainy memories and blizzard emotions. She circles and pokes that big ol' carcass of life. Everything acts on her, and she records it.

Mitchell fans tell me it's an excellent album. But I wonder if the rest of us have the patience for the serious listening it requires.

I back into Joni Mitchell...

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Janet Maslin

[The unpredictable caliber of Joni Mitchell's] work has been as exciting as it is frustrating. Now, for once, she has gambled and lost. The best that can be said for Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is that it is an instructive failure.

Since Blue, Mitchell has demonstrated an increasing fondness for formats that don't suit her. Not that this awkwardness can't be occasionally successful: on Hejira, she clung so resolutely to even the stray flat notes that the impression was an attractive one of stubbornness and strength. But, increasingly, Mitchell's pretensions have shaped her appraisal of her own gifts. At her best, she is a keen observer but not a particularly original one, and...

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