For more than three decades it has been customary, if not quite obligatory, for pop music journalists to compare all blossoming female singer-songwriters to Joni Mitchell. Perhaps it is an indication of Mitchell’s greatness that so few songstresses seem able to escape her shadow. Perhaps. Certainly, though, it shows a lack of discernment on the part of the journalists. There are very few singer-songwriters (of either sex) who have achieved anything like the quality of Mitchell’s output. When we consider Mitchell’s distinctive, imaginative and inventive body of work it is clear that, while it is not entirely beyond compare, most comparisons of the type mentioned are simply lazy.
There are, in Mitchell’s canon, numerous examples of fine but undistinguished songs; that is to say songs that might have been written by anyone with a flair for melody and a sound understanding of harmony. The haunting Both Side Now or the sing-a-long Circle Game are good examples of these. But the more one considers Mitchell’s output the more one realises how few of her songs are text-book or four-square. Even a simple song like Night in the City is enlivened by a modal (myxolidian in this case) feel that gives it its spicy, nocturnal character.
The easy comparison to be made, then, ought not to be with the myriad soulful songstresses plucking their guitars in Joni’s wake, but with the universal bench-mark that is Lennon-McCartney. I can think of no other song-writer whose work so consistently (and yet unobtrusively) breaks (perhaps one should say stretches) compositional rules. Even from her earliest efforts, Mitchell eschewed the neat symmetrical structures deemed necessary to create catchy, memorable songs. Like Lennon and McCartney, her natural expression led her to pull the four-bar musical phrase this way and that so that there are few examples of the classic twelve, sixteen or thirty-two bar pop-song structure in her output. By this criterion, moreover, she probably leaves the Liverpool geniuses behind, but, like them, the songs she creates sound natural and effortless. The rules are broken only to further the drama of the story being told, or to allow for a more fruitful expression of emotion, or because the melodic train-of-thought was better left unobstructed.
I have chosen three Joni Mitchell songs to illustrate this. I have picked these three partly because they are particular favourites, but also because they encapsulate certain characteristic elements of Mitchell’s art and so can be used to illuminate her especial qualities as a composer.
The three songs are People’s Parties (from her Court & Spark album of 1974), Shades of Scarlet Conquering (from The Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1975) and Amelia (from Hejira, 1976).
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2009, Joni Mitchell said “I usually use ‘I’ as the narrator in my songs, but not all the ‘I’s’ are me; they’re characters. It’s theatre”. Theatricality is central to much of Mitchell’s songwriting. The classic Mitchell lyric – if there is such a thing – is both poetic and conversational: a monologue. It is Mitchell’s nature to be wordy and allusive, but fortunately her particular melodic propensity is to craft songs that not only set her words elegantly, but also set them off. It is amusing to speculate on how another composer might have responded had a words-only Mitchell approached him with a view to collaboration. How might Jerome Kern or Richard Rogers have risen to the challenge of setting words such as:
Just before our love got lost you said,
“I am as constant as a northern star.”
And I said, “Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar.”
Doubtless, either of those gentleman could have placed his robust melodic talent sympathetically at Mitchell’s service but it seems unlikely that the resulting collaborations would have caused a single sleepless night for Oscar Hammerstein. Fortunately for Mitchell (and us), as noted, she had no need of a tunesmith (though she did occasionally compose collaboratively with other musicians, notably Charles Mingus). Mitchell has a gift for writing melodies that sound as conversational as her lyrics. The resulting songs, though, are neither “patter” songs, nor do they have the heightened, stylised feel of recitative (though there is a fanciful comparison to be made between The Last Time I Saw Richard, with its two part verse – conversational leading into more free-flowing melody – and the recitative-aria paring so popular with classical opera composers); rather Mitchell found a way to write flowing coherent melodies that grow from the natural spoken rhythms of the words being set.
In People’s Parties we find this kind of writing at its most adept and effortless. The lyrics are arranged into four stanzas, all conforming to a broad structure, though with variations in the scansion from one to the next. Though these stanzas are lengthy (the first, for example, has 57 syllables) they are each squeezed into just eight bars (at an andante pace). With each syllable set to a single note, and without any significant pauses in the melody, each sung phrase pushes in hard on the end of the preceding one so that the singer seems like a woman compelled to share confidences. The rhythm of the melody, therefore, perfectly suits the drama of the song, in which the wall-flower party-goer looks at her sophisticated fellow guests (“they’ve got stamps of many countries, they’ve got passport smiles”) and shares with us candid thoughts as she perceives the sadness beneath the stylish surface. The melodic phrases, refusing to be constrained by bar-lines are formed of dotted quavers, tied notes and groups of triplets; and not only are there no rests within each verse, but the succeeding eight bar verse follows with scarcely a breath, giving the whole song a remarkable edge. We can feel the singer’s tipsy grip on our arm, so keen is she to pour out her heart.
The guitar accompaniment to the song emphasises the poignancy of the lyric. Its harmonic tensions provide an extra level of musical interest, which is welcome given the lack of a contrasting section in the musical structure – there is no bridge, chorus or instrumental break. The key is D major, but the use of a passing F natural chord within a descending cadence-like phrase (G – F – D) that occurs at the end of the introduction and at the end of the second bar of each verse adds a hint of the minor. In bars four to eight, furthermore, the accompanying harmonies become darker – shifting to a B minor 7th chord and then to E minor 9th but in both of these chords the notes D and A (the tonic and the dominant) continue to ring out in Mitchell’s open-tuning arrangement. In this way the harmonic underpinning of the second part of the verse suggests, if not quite agitation, then at least the stirring of deeper emotions beneath a controlled surface.
In the third and fourth verses the singer turns attention to herself and her own inability to make sense of what she sees and is trying to convey. The coda opens with the same music as the eight-bar verses we’ve been hearing, but when we reach the B minor 7th / E minor 9th section, these chords now form a swaying accompaniment to broadened-out melodic material setting the words “laughing it all away”. Here, the word “away”, alone, is set over more than two bars in mellifluous contrast to the cluttered word-setting of the main song body. The gossipy girl seems to be attempting some kind of emotional frankness. This music is repeated, ad lib, to bring the song to its end.
There are broad similarities between People’s Parties and Amelia. There are the Joni hallmarks – a harmonically questioning guitar “backdrop” and a melody with uneven phrase lengths that derives from natural speech rhythms. Amelia, however, aims for something larger: it is a low-key epic, soliloquy rather than monologue. Like Parties, it is strophic in construction, but here the verses are longer, and given more space to breathe. The melancholiac chattiness brilliantly evoked in Parties is here replaced by something more considered and exploratory. There are ample rests between phrases. The person speaking to us here is more mature, philosophical, more relaxed with who she is, yet perhaps more attuned to disappointment. Mitchell’s music deftly paints these characteristics.
The Amelia of the title is Amelia Earhart, the “ghost of aviation”, as Mitchell has it. Earhart is not the subject of the song, though. She is, rather, invoked as a spiritual fellow-traveller, or possibly an alter ego, by the song’s narrator who is on a car journey “across the burning desert”. The aviator Amelia is sometimes addressed directly, and sometimes alluded to in the third person. Each verse, after the narrator has rehearsed her thoughts and feelings on travel, art, love or life, culminates in the gnomic dismissal – “Amelia, it was just a false alarm”.
Mitchell’s guitar “backdrop” suggests the endless “bleak terrain” through which the narrator is travelling. The music of the introduction has an F-major / D-minor feel. It is rhythmically unemphatic, in a way that might suggest stasis rather than movement or travel, but Mitchell ushers in the first verse with an active chord change – from F to G. This harmonic rise adroitly suggests forward movement and starts off a sequence of harmonic disquiet that eventually resolves, sinking back (“just a false alarm”) into the stark F-major music of the opening. There is a particular poignancy in the way that the “active” G major melody (the drive across the desert, the passage of thought) always leads back to the “passive” F-major of the backdrop. It suggests continuity, appropriately enough, a journey. But is this journey a circular one?
Parties and Amelia portray two different characters (or perhaps the same character at different stages of her life), and Mitchell’s music gives the scope and context to enable an accomplished musician to communicate the dramatic content, and – as it were – bring the characters to life. Mitchell herself is such a remarkable performer that fans of her songs are most likely fans of her performances of the songs (the cover versions that come along from time to time are a bonus). There is an intimacy and directness in most of Mitchell’s performances that has created a bond of affection between the singer and her fans. One hears often the old line about a good performer being one who can make each individual in her audience feel that she is singing solely for him (and even achieve this heart-to-heart communication over tinny speakers in the listener’s bedroom). Well, there’s probably no harm in leaving that assertion unchallenged for the moment, but we must proffer the caveat that to affix solely on the personal, intimate aspects of Mitchell as performer is to risk missing the riches and refinements on offer in her compositions. As noted above, the “I” is not always Joni and it would serve any music lover well to be attuned to the skilful ways in which Mitchell is able to evoke a whole range of dramatic situations: character, narrative and emotion.
The third song I have chosen – happily, perhaps! – both takes us away from first person narrative, and into a more standard, mainstream style of song-writing. The Mitchell hallmarks are still present. There’s no chance of mistaking this for the work of another songwriter, but the overall feel is more conventional, perhaps even old-fashioned. The harmonies are jazzy and lush, appropriate for the glamorous Hollywood aspirations of the song’s leading lady. Shades of Scarlet Conquering seems to be rooted more in the tradition of the Great American Songbook than the post-Rock ‘n’ Roll singer-songwriter tradition. Its affecting melody would not sound out of place in Peggy Lee’s repertoire (now that would have been a Mitchell cover to cherish).
But, Joni being Joni, she must needs temper romance with tartness, and while rooted in song-writing tradition, shape her material in an individual way. The ambivalence she feels towards her main character, Scarlet, is expressed in the suspended harmonies and the major-minor shifts that occur throughout. We don’t even learn the character’s real name, assuming that Scarlet is a satirical nickname playing on the woman’s minx-like characteristics and her Gone With the Wind pretensions. She comes “out of the fire like Catholic saints … mimicking tenderness she sees in sentimental movies”. Yet, her “blood-red fingernails” are on hands that are “impossibly gentle” and she wears “magnolias hopeful in her auburn hair”.
The song proper is in A minor, the first melodic strain of which sits comfortably in that tonality for eight bars as the singer intones bitterly about Scarlet, but the last A minor chord is extended for a ninth bar with wind-ruffled triplets in the accompaniment that leads into the romantic second, eight-bar strain which pulls us away from the “satirical” A minor on a brief heart-felt melodic flight ending with a peremptory dismissal (in the first verse setting the words “takes her breath away”) that lands us in a sombre E minor, the dominant preparing us for a return to the tonic.
Had Mitchell stopped here she would have given us a song of exquisite yearning with dark implications that would have sat securely amongst her more inspired offerings. But she doesn’t. In line with her notion of song as theatre, she develops the material already discussed to add even more emotional richness. There is another musical idea that interacts with the song proper to create a more complex musical structure overall. The piece opens with it: suspended chords, in a quizzical D major which soon, via a slide into D minor, introduces that satirical A minor verse. When the music from the introduction returns, however, it does so not, as one would expect, between verses, but interrupts the third verse after the nine-bar first strain, and develops into a dreamy interlude, before returning us, with a charged harmonic shift, to the second strain. It is a masterstroke showing the kind of sophisticated grasp of form that sets Mitchell apart. After a final verse the introductory / interlude material returns to form a coda that denies us an easy harmonic (or dramatic) resolution: the song is as much about fragile hope as it is about uncertainty.
Joni Mitchell is justly recognised as one of the outstanding singer-songwriters of the last half-century or so. On one level she is cherished as the sympathetic, long-playing companion providing comfort and understanding for the love-lorn and misunderstood in so many teenage bed-rooms. As such, it would probably be appropriate to strike a medal or two for her breast. On another level, she showed herself to be the consummate chronicler of sophisticated adult angst. She’s also the darling of the progressivist – the Yellow Taxi hippy-chick who became the champion of the American Indian and the scourge of the war-makers. I have no wish to decry her achievements in these respects, or to belittle the comfort or encouragement that her fans derive from it, but it is a shame to let this obscure her musical achievements which, in my view, show genuine genius.
There are, after all, many accomplished purveyors of sophisticated love songs, chroniclers of loneliness and disillusionment, and there’s no shortage of challenging, socially aware artists. But the kind of subtle, refined, musical craftsmanship that Joni Mitchell excelled at is all too rare. By creating melodies and musical structures that are responsive to the nuances of the lyrics being set, and which convey so potently the shifting emotional states, Mitchell has created a canon of work that is as quirkily individual as it is varied and satisfying. There are few artists working in the field of popular music who deserve to be so esteemed.
[edited 21 March 2014 to correct a small typo]