“No, but are you really listening?” This is the line I repeatedly confront my husband with when listening to Joni Mitchell. I have yet to convert him, and until that fateful day, I’ll be a broken record. I knew that I had found a kindred spirit in Michelle Mercer’s Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period upon reading that the author used Mitchell as a litmus test for would-be boyfriends, confessing, “When a guy seemed like a decent prospect, there was one good way to find out.” She adds, “You didn’t play Join Mitchell for girlfriends… I already knew that they got it,” but “a soulmate would ear the ingenuity of Joni’s chords, the novelty of her song structure…” Judging by this standard, my otherwise wonderful husband is not soulmate material — Joni doesn’t inspire reverence in him so much as chuckles and gentle mockery (can you believe the gall! To chuckle…) For example, in the admittedly playful but equally brilliant “All I Want,” he gets such a kick out out of the line “I want to shampoo you” that he likes to convert the following one, “I want to renew you…” into “I want to run through you…” He also occasionally chicken balks when I’m putting on an impromptu concert from the revered Joni canon, but that’s another story…
For the longest time, I thought my singing voice was the problem. I kept saying, “You’d like Joni better if if you listened to her sing her own songs, rather than my flawed imitations,” but he’s yet to have the aha moment, you know, when he comes to his senses and properly worships the ground she walks on. I do give him credit for nabbing me a copy of Will You Take Me As I Am from our local library, and we shared a laugh over the fact that the “you’re not really listening!” sentiment seems to be something of a phenomenon. Then there’s Mercer’s observation that women “just get” Joni, consistent with my experience — I’m thinking of my friend Allison, and my mom, whose Ladies of the Canyon and Court and Spark CDs first prompted my obsession — and men? Well, the noncommittal ones just need to listen, in case I haven’t made that clear.
I discovered Joni Mitchell relatively late, I guess — in college. I’m embarrassed to say that as an adolescent I never had a love affair with any particular band, or “singer-songwriter,” excluding some modest enthusiasm for The Cranberries 🙂 I’ve always tended towards female singers — at the time I was probably fond of Lauryn Hill, Dido, Sara Mclachlan, you get the picture — and then of course I was also immersed in the campy, self-referential, albeit musically rich world of musical theatre, which probably crowded out space in my soul for more earnest, angsty plungings into sophisticated artists. Nothing in my middle or high school years compared to the technically agile, lyrically pointed and precise, vocally pure music of Joni Mitchell, which only became more rewarding as I discovered more albums, her style always evolving, becoming more and more expansive. For all intents and purposes, though, I think college still counts as adolescence, at least for my innocent, rather late-blooming development, and so I was probably bowled over by her lyrics in the singular, intense way of a pimply teenager. In her book Mercer states that according to scientific studies, the music we are exposed to in our adolescence hits us the deepest. I find this fact at once utterly fascinating and entirely sensible — it makes sense like the notion that the first love is the deepest, but it’s fascinating to imagine that the half-formed synapses and emotional/hormonal turmoil of adolescence is also the perfect storm for receptivity to music.
Mercer is a music critic for such media outlets as NPR, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and DownBeat. She originally interviewed Joni for her biography of Wayne Shorter, and many of their conversations are included in Will You Take Me As I Am. Mercer writes as a fan, but “without a scintilla of fanzine gush,” as described by reviewer Phillip Lopate. In the book she writes that what inspired her to take on the project was her immense gratitude for Mitchell’s songs, and a feeling — shared by Joni herself — that despite the awards and critical acclaim, there is a lack of critical analysis breaking down what Mercer calls “the hybrid force of her words and music.” The book is a huge pleasure for fellow Joni fans, allowing us to revisit our own gratitude for her work and investigate the source of our immense pleasure in it, and — no small thing — providing us with extra ammo the next time we need to persuade a certain special someone of the genius that he’s missing out on 🙂 I’m only halfway through, but here are some points I’ve found noteworthy so far:
The Personal Is Universal
- Much is made out of Mitchell’s dislike for the term “confessional” as it is often ascribed to her deeply personal and heartfelt songwriting style. Despite the fact that Mitchell is gifted with a profound receptivity to her environment and to the people around her, falling in love multiple times and drawing artistic inspiration from her many loves, she chafes at the word “confess,” as if the songs were more about her and the specificity of her experience than artificial renderings of characters, speaking to what is universal about the human experience. Blue is known to be one of her most heart wrenchingly personal albums, as well as one of her most artistically coherent, elevated ones. According to Mitchell, when she played “All I Want” for some songwriter friends, Kris Kristofferson’s famous response was, “Jesus, Joni, save something for yourself.” Mercer argues that Joni’s willingness to put so much of herself in her music, to write so purely from the heart while putting out music that is so formidable from a technical and artistic standpoint, is exactly what makes her music so universally beloved, almost a “religious experience” for listeners. As Mercer writes, her music tends to feels like a unique experience to each listener. As Mitchell puts it, “The people who get the most out of my music see themselves in it.”
Linking Emotions and Artistry
- One of the most impressive aspects of Mitchell’s songwriting is the degree to which emotion and heartfelt expression underpins every musical choice, and — here’s the key — makes the music better. As Mercer puts it, Mitchell has a reputation for being untutored, for “instinctively laying out feelings on a record…” For a great many of us, this approach may lead to amateur, self-indulgent ramblings, but in her case, even though raw emotion is driving the music, because emotion is driving the music, the “aesthetic rigor” of her music is strengthened. (Mercer devotes an entire section to Mitchell’s use of open tunings on the guitar, freeing her up to experiment with unusual intervals… I have a book of her music for piano, and the sharps and flats are through the roof; the open tunings thing explains that.) “How many artists would kill to say,” Mercer writes, “that they created new chord progressions and structures from a place of emotional inspiration, but writing from the heart made Joni’s music more technically and aesthetically intricate, complex surprising…” On a side note, in a college course I took with director Mary Zimmerman, I remember her once saying that to her, the creative process always feels like a process of anthropology, of uncovering, digging, getting to the heart of things, rather than building from the ground up. If this is how art-making should be, then Joni consistently lives up to the ideal, something to marvel at.
Lyrics, Not Poetry
- Another impressive, and signature aspect of Mitchell’s songwriting is the degree to which the lyrics and music are connected. A testament to this is that reading Mitchell’s lyrics on the page, they fall short of poetry. But listening to her lyrics sung, they sound poetic. Mercer gives an example in the song “A Case of You,” in which the lyric reads, “I am frightened of the devil and I’m drawn to those ones who ain’t…afraid…” The asymmetry of the word “afraid” that follows the rhyming word, “ain’t” (rhymes with “I am lonely painter/I live in a box of paints”) hints at the boldness and daring possessed by those who “ain’t afraid.” A criteria, perhaps, for all good lyrics, Mitchell’s lyrics are meant to be sung, and in setting them to music, she achieves something worthy of a poet.
Confessions that Run Deep
- In the chapter, “In The Manner of the Ancients,” Mercer charts some of Mitchell’s influences, finding historical continuity in Mitchell’s impulses as a songwriter. She starts with a literal link: leading up to Blue, Mitchell spent time on the hippie expat island of Matala, Crete, in no uncertain terms “on a lonely road…traveling/traveling/traveling,” undeniably “looking for something…” Mitchell characterizes this point in her career as suffocatingly “self-referential”; she was seeking new experiences beyond the music industry and looking to shake off her image as an “angelic folk maiden.” So she headed to what at the time was a very trendy hippie hot spot, a place that also happens to be ancient and steeped in history, for example, a stopping point for Ulysses admits his “traveling/traveling/traveling.” Leading up to Blue, Mitchell’s physical location and “place” in her career aligned itself with the odysseys of the ancients; she was traveling, adventuring, seeking, looking to know herself through the process of making art. As Mercer notes, the mandate to “know thyself” is “essential to the ancient Greek worldview.” More specifically, Mercer connects Mitchell’s quest to know herself through songwriting to St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which Augustine “comes to know himself” by “merging Augustine the protagonist and Augustine the narrator.” In a society where written works were customarily recited aloud, Augustine envisioned the lone reader as the audience for his Confessions, catering to this figure with the “profound intimacy” of “revealing a mind thinking.” I see a parallel in the scores of lone listeners who feel that their experience of Mitchell’s songs is somehow unique, existential.
Traces of Dylan
- Mercer gives a short, appreciable summary of the relationship between Mitchell and Dylan. Allow me to share a condensed version: Both members of music royalty share a folk music heritage, rooted in Woodie Guthrie’s songs. Both singer-songwriters depart from Guthrie’s populist, social commentary oriented lyrics to scale more personal, more universal subject matter. However, Mercer points out an interesting contrast between Dylan and Mitchell’s approach to the personal/universal: Dylan’s “confessional” songs contain an air of bitterness, almost lessening the blow, whereas Joni confronts the personal with her defenses down, sheerly, from a place of vulnerability. (I think this has something to do with the difference between male/female appreciation of Joni — perhaps women identify with and find catharsis in her vulnerability, whereas this quality falls flat for some male listeners? Women find gravitas and genius in her vulnerability, whereas men (some, that is, I know there are plenty of male Joni fans) don’t know what to do with it?)
Soundscape as Landscape
- One more piece of Mercer’s analysis to mull over is the way in which Mitchell’s music sounds like what her native Canadian prairie land looks like, and more generally, the way in which the sound of music parallels a visual landscape. Mitchell hails from Saskatchewan, Canada, a landlocked province characterized by “flatland,” “big sky,” and “wide open spaces.” Mercer quotes Mitchell on how her flatlander upbringing permeates her songs: “I’ve always thought Neil [Young] and I have carried a loping prairie walk in our music, a loping pulse… As opposed to reggae, which for me has a tree frog sound.” The “loping prairie walk” image makes me think especially of the song, “Night in the City” from Song to a Seagull. Mercer notes that the frequency of the terms “soundscape” and “landscape” in music criticism have prompted editors to ban both words entirely, and draws a more explicit connection between the two in citing landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead’s observation that both “scapes” “are nonverbal forms of communication that affect us subconsciously and profoundly.” Mercer adds that “the act of listening can feel like sculpting shapes out of the air,” that the presence of the prairie in Mitchell’s songs is both “subtle and manifest.”
So there you go — an attempt to dig my chops into some music criticism, sharing it out of gratitude for Joni. She gets better with every listen. What’s your favorite song/album? Drop me a line; we Joni fans must band together 🙂