Blasphemy though this may be to most Joni Mitchell fans, I like For the Roses even more than I like Blue. Writing-wise, it’s more masterful; musically, it’s more filled out; stylistically, it’s more varied; lyrically, it’s more adventurous; and tone-wise, it’s more cohesive, invoking a sort of dreamy, detached mood throughout the album. Kind of like the album cover, with its washed-out blues and greens and scene of calm pastoral natural beauty. And the album title, which is somehow indirect and evocative all at once.

Most of the songs on For the Roses are remarkable in some way or other. ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’, for example, is the first use of a seventh interval for vocal harmonies that I have encountered in Western popular music, and sounds, quite against expectation, gorgeous. The lyrics are atypical of Ms. Mitchell, being a lot of disparate but vivid phrases strung together to form a bizarre narrative of sorts. And the whole thing is kept from floating off into the ether by the rather organic sound of squelching fingers on guitar strings during the complex chord changes.

But there’s lots of typical Mitchell here too, exemplified by the very personal, incisive, yet somehow clinical dissection of her relationship with her parents in ‘Let the Wind Carry Me’:

She don’t like my kick-pleat skirt

She don’t like my eyelids painted green

She don’t like me staying up late in my high-heeled shoes

Living for that rock and roll dancing scene

Papa says, ‘Leave the girl alone, Mother

She’s looking like a movie queen’

Mama thinks she spoilt me

Papa knows somehow he set me free

Mama thinks she spoilt me rotten

She blames herself, but Papa, he blesses me

It’s a rough road to travel

Mama, let go now, it’s always called for me

The title track is simultaneously a showcase for pretty acoustic guitar and a knowing, biting commentary on the funny business that is the music business. You can’t help but wince when she describes the contradictions inherent in selling ‘art’ or ‘self-expression’:

In some office sits a poet

And he trembles as he sings

And he asks some guy to circulate his soul around (…)

Remember the days when you used to sit

And make up your tunes for love

And pour your simple sorrow to the soundhole and your knee

And now you’re seen on giant screens

And at parties for the press

And for people who have slices of you from the company

But what makes ‘For the Roses’ special among the many diatribes against the commercial nature of the business, apart from the degree of articulateness, is the degree of self-awareness which keeps her from sounding pompous and hypocritical. Mitchell is quite cognisant of the fact that

I guess I seem ungrateful

With my teeth sunk in the hand

That brings me things I really can’t give up just yet.

And, of course, the imagery. It really is quite unfair that she can come up with such apt and unusual comparisons as

The caressing rev of motors

Finely tuned like fancy women in thirties evening gowns

and

The moon swept down black water

Like an empty spotlight.

‘For the Roses’ is one of the quieter songs on the album, utilising the spare combination of guitar and vocals that characterise much of Blue. But the song, like the rest of For the Roses, exhibits substantially stronger melodies and even more beautiful vocal lines. Furthermore, Mitchell incorporates quite a few other additional elements in the arrangements, to good effect. Apart from the (plumper) piano, doubled guitars and richer harmonies, new instruments include the flute, saxophone, hand-drums. There’s even harmonica on the country-inflected number ‘You Turn Me On I’m a Radio’. As rock-and-roll myth has it, this was the sarcastic product of the record company’s directive to produce a radio-friendly hit, quite like the Velvet Underground’s Loaded. And like the latter, the result is pretty great: a catchy, breezy gem of a song that acts as a successful extended metaphor complete with puns.

You turn me on, I’m a radio

I’m a country station

I’m a little bit corny

I’m a wildwood flower waving for you

Broadcasting tower waving for you (…)

I’m going to tell you again now

If you’re still listening there:

If you’re driving into town with a dark cloud above you

Dial in the number who’s bound to love you (…)

If your head says ‘Forget it’ but your heart’s still smoking

Call me at the station, the lines are open

‘Electricity’ is another shining example of extended metaphor. And you might be forgiven for thinking, ‘Hey, what is with all the extended metaphors? Are they just poetic exercises of some sort? Is she just phoning it in?’ But no worries on that account. ‘Electricity’ is once an expository tale of a pair of lovers, as well as a thoughtful commentary on relationships between men and women and on the wider state of the world.

And she holds out her flashlight and she shines it on me

She wants me to tell her what the trouble might be

Well I’m learning, it’s peaceful

With a good dog and some trees

Out of touch with the breakdown of this century

They’re not going to fix it up too easy (…)

And she begs him to show her how to fix it again

While the song that he sang her to soothe her to sleep

Runs all through her circuits like a heartbeat

And in spite of this complexity, everything pulls together with the help of Ms Mitchell’s usual vivid imagery, memorable melody, and the apposite but subtle arrangement – note the steady, light, hypnotic, pulsing taps on a hand-drum that come in for just a couple of drawn-out breaths right around ‘heartbeat’.

Another favourite of mine is ‘Woman of Heart and Mind’, which features a lovely guitar riff and painfully sharp lyrics:

I am a woman of heart and mind

With time on her hands, no child to raise

You come to me like a little boy

And I give you my scorn and my praise

After the rush when you come back down

You’re always disappointed, nothing seems to keep you high

Drive your bargains

Push your papers

Win your medals

Fuck your strangers

Don’t it leave you on the empty side?

Again, as in the case of Blue, there are a couple of songs (on a 12-track album) that I don’t much like. For whatever reason, they are the opening and closing items: the excessively dramatic, sanctimonious ‘Banquet’ (‘Who let the greedy in and who left the needy out?’) and the aimless (music-wise, lyrics-wise) ‘Ludwig’s Tune (Judgement of the Moon and Stars)’ respectively. Then again, it is easy enough to skip these without sacrificing the flow of the intervening tracks.

I understand that Mitchell’s most popular albums by far are Blue (1971) and Court and Spark (1974). The intervening For the Roses (1972), has perhaps gotten lost in the scheme of things. Undeservedly so, in my opinion.

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