Joni Mitchell

Start Free Trial

Arthur Schmidt

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 construction, with chords and words seldom wasted….

Mitchell sings fiction, and complex fiction at that. But though she dedicated her first record to "Mr. Kratzman who taught me to love words," it is her musicianship that stretches the pop form to admit qualities that would otherwise be incongruously "literary."

Most stories on that first record, Songs to a Seagull, are spare sketches of character revealed in mundane incident or gesture…. As in Dylan's best songs, one hears them first as wholes, catching a phrase here and there. Words and phrases fold under chord complexities until, after not one but many listenings, they are heard or suddenly really heard.

The best of these sketches is of "Nathan La Franeer," a taxi-driver who "hated everyone who paid to ride / And share his common space." Mitchell's lyrics, melodies, and soprano voice typically possess an old-lace beauty some find off-putting, but here she spares no urban brutality: "an aging cripple selling Superman balloons," police siren careening against guitar as "With gangs and girly shows / The ghostly garden grows." The pain is simply there, but it is her own and not borrowed, and so compassion, in this instance, does not cloy.

Seagull's "The Pirate of Penance" is already full narrative, murder mystery with accusation and defence. Perhaps over-ambitious—since Mitchell sings the two parts, it is unintelligible without recourse to the lyrics printed on the sleeve—it foreshadows the innovative use she later makes of dialogue; as lyricist to tell stories, as composer to introduce conversational rhythms into instrumental as well as vocal phrasings.

Ladies of the Canyon hints at, and her fourth album, Blue's final two songs illustrate by their peripheral placement an attempt at extending the pop-song form. These tunes, one notices, are less "sweet," less accessible, and seem to fragment under the weight of anxious pauses and parentheses. Everyday prose takes over from Mitchell's perhaps self-conscious taste for "beauty"…. (pp. 340-41)

Her versifying is limited by music, fated to reduction on paper. Her music is limited by the popular form she stubbornly stretches. But she is a "chick singer" (as I have heard her described) in much the same sense that Virginia Woolf is a chick novelist. (p. 345)

Arthur Schmidt, in Popular Music & Society (copyright © 1973 by R. Serge Denisoff), Vol. II, No. 4, 1973.

Of all the female writers and singers post-dating Joan Baez in pop music, Joni Mitchell seems to me to have arrived at the most complete definition of herself as an artist. True, she's not witty, like Dory Previn, as sophisticated as Midler or La Streisand, nor as stylistically far-ranging as Carole King, but few other rock musicians, male or female, have so refined personal expression that it succeeds as genuine art.

Of course, this view is to see pop, albeit the best of it, as working self-consciously, and Mitchell, along with James Taylor, has never lacked critics who deplore the egocentric nature of her...

(This entire section contains 811 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

lyrics, to the extent that the term "singer-songwriter" has tended to fall into disrepute….

But Joni Mitchell isn't like … Taylor, even though whole albums have been patently devoted to current men in her life and explanations of the relationship…. Even in her most personal revelations, we're involved because she speaks directly to our innermost feelings. This ability to express the most private emotions in a public way, with utmost subtleties and nuances, is the stuff of real poetry, and I have little hesitation in stating that Mitchell is a major poetic force whose stature in the Seventies will have to be evaluated on a very high level indeed.

This is by way of saying that … "Court And Spark" … is her most mature piece of work yet, and one in which she deepens the complexities of her art, both in a lyric and musical sense, as well as taking off on her new direction….

If anything, besides being the album's key song, ["Same Situation" is] the most beautifully melodic statement here, with perhaps the most weighted and delicate lyrics she's ever written….

"Court And Spark" strongly underlines a growing belief that Joni Mitchell should be sitting at [Dylan's] right hand. The cards are face up. The King and Queen, they say. (p. 31)

Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), January 26, 1974.


Lester Bangs


Jon Landau