Her appeal is in the subtle texture of her toughness, and her readiness to tell secrets and make obscure and difficult feelings lucid and vocal. She breaks your heart and makes you tentatively smile. She is the leading lady in a personal pageant of Heavy Duty, tension-bound romance. The poetry of her love songs sets her almost on some other planet, some separate plane where there are no inhibitions about divine arrogance, no compunctions about laying the inside of her on the line. And then there’s Joel Bernstein’s flamboyant inside photograph — our Valkyrie gazing at green water in motion — it complements the unique feeling that one gets about the person who made this record, who can emerge from the hazy watercolor of life and say, “I am the best person it is within my power to be. Here I am.”
“Some turn to Jesus/Some turn to heroin/And some turn to ramblin’ around.” People will go to desperate lengths to fill a hole in the heart. Some do some of the above, others might try to stuff themselves or another person into the hole: a few others make words and music, opening the hole a little wider so the amazing pain of catharsis and creation has the space to squeeze itself up and out of the wound. Love’s tension is Joni Mitchell’s medium — she molds and casts it like a sculptress, lubricating this tense clay with powerful emotive imagery and swaying hypnotic music that sets her listener up for another of her great strengths, a bitter facility with irony and incongruity. As the tiny muscles in your spine begin to relax as they are massaged by a gorgeous piano line or a simple guitar or choral introduction, you might get quietly but bluntly slammed with a large dose of Woman Truth.
In For the Roses, Joni is unabashedly biased, a wronged and wronging lover, an open and forgiving loser at love’s games. Her lovers are somewhat less than idealized, in turn overly sensitive, boorish, alcoholic, jive, immature, selfish or junkies. They are human. Of her relationships with her men she is candidly her own severest critic. In her songs she is sensible, chameleon, caustic, sorrowing, boisterous, judgmental, harsh and passionately understanding, occasionally passing deftly through this gauntlet of emotions in the course of one song.
Yet her great charm and wit, her intense vocal acting and phrasing abilities (the way she chooses to deal with a single word can change the feeling of an entire song) and the sheer power and gumption of her presence combine to bring it all off and make it shine. With this record she seems to have cleared the air of the beautiful murk and ambiguity of her last, Blue, and what she again makes plain is her feeling that both sexes should play by the same rules, at least when she’s involved.
Eloquence is going cheap these days and there’s good music to be heard all over. When the two come together, as in this woman, the appreciative mind can boggle and stall, its attention riveted. As a musician she uses a certain kind of sprung rhythm and lyrical beauty that is transcendingly, touchingly romantic without ever being common. There are no ordinary tears shed here. As a poet she has a refined, working knowledge of the functions of free verse, with its basis of boundless expression here fitted to melodies like fingers to a glove. The lyrics as printed on the sleeve stand strongly, linear, by themselves. Individual songs interlink, and For the Roses is constructed like the cleverest of novels — stories within stories within stories. The first cut is a prologue, the last an impulsive, almost disjointed epilogue. In between is a cycle dominated by a fiercely independent perspective, modern Everywoman’s, but one woman’s all the same.
“Banquet” introduces us to this world, a metaphorical table from which “some get the gravy/some get the gristle … and some get nothing/Though there’s plenty to spare.” It is just her and her piano, resolute, angry chords, and the album begins on a portentous, ominous note.
“Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” — the apparatus and taste of smack — is brilliant and chilling with its ironically brimstone lyric that is cruelly telling especially when read apart from the song:
Cold Blue Steel out of money
One eye for the beat police
Sweet Fire calling,
“You can’t deny me
Now you know what you need.”
Underneath the jungle gym
Looking for Sweet Fire
Shadow of Lady Release
“Come with me
I know the way,” she says
“Its down, down, down the dark ladder …”
The weeping reed fills that interlace the song come from Tommy Scott and are superb, their airy swirling blending with Joni’s imagery like the best of jazz, like Dolphy wailing his heart out on “Melba” or “17 West.” But for the fear and degradation of the lyric this could be the most lissome and trenchant love song on the album, so lovely is the tune and so sensual the singing. But then, who says that love in a strange form is not what heroin is all about?
“Barangrill,” with its more complex arrangement, is lighter and a welcome break from the damnation of “Steel.” Its sprightly rap about a nice scene on the road manages to remain properly tense in keeping with the overall temper. In whatever setting, Joni can’t resist a comment. She seems to always be a sucker for a remark.
“Lesson in Survival” is the first of the love songs, about the restlessness of what’s new, the longing for sensation, the more pastoral the better. It hurts, this song, because she is capable of delivering such a strong subliminal suggestion and the pulse of her desire is so irresistible. It’s so pretty and true it makes me want to jump out of my skin. She says it of herself — “When you dig down deep/You lose good sleep/And it makes you heavy company.” “Lesson” segues by way of the piano into “Let the Wind Carry Me.” With a choral and woodwind flavor it’s about family chemistry, parental consent, content and displeasure. Talk about heavy company, try your parents!
“For the Roses” ends the side. Another lovely song, its ultimate cynicism is her peculiar brand of realism, an incisive portrait of what the business of fame does to humans who play music in the big leagues: “Up the charts/Off to the airport/You’re name’s in the news/Everything’s first class/The lights go down/And it’s just you up there/Getting them to feel like that.” As perhaps a picture of this woman’s much-publicized relationships, the song seems a composite photograph. That she chose to name the album for the song is an indication of her attitudes and knowledge — “I heard it in the wind last night/It sounded like applause … And the moon swept down black water/Like an empty spotlight.” A person who understands obsessions understands people.
The second side opens with a little more love-ache. “See You Sometime” deals with fleeting feelings and romantic competition, a sweet piano song with fine dramatic singing: The tense first lines are in a faintly hysterical soprano changing to a more manageable alto as the singer’s feelings wind down towards the end. This handsome song is about how perspective alters quickly when one plays fast and rough. It is a nice companion to “Electricity,” a short-circuited affair of the heart with imaginary poetry, guitar and percussion, a lulling choral bit and a riff that says often people think of themselves unconsciously as machines, but flesh and bone are weak enough.
“You Turn Me On I’m a Radio” is simply stone great — she’s a radio both figuratively and literally. No-nonsense lines about What’s Up between two people, an example of her rollicking and rarely used humor, a rock & roll ditty that is a breath of sea air in her occasionally Dickinsonian parlor. “Blonde in the Bleachers” follows, with a wistful and resigned voice longing for a security it knows it can’t have. “You can’t hold the hand of a rock & roll man — very long.” It’s the sum of all those teasing photos, the rumors, the gossip. She sounds wise, but miserable. Stephen Stills plays a pretty coda on guitar and the song, like the title cut, seems to be one of the major emotional messages that she’s trying to get across.
As for “Woman of Heart and Mind” — this is the capper. If pop music has the power to make you cry … well, make your own judgment, just as she makes hers in this sublime portrait of a flawed lover. All her emotional barricades, seemingly so often breached, are broken in this song. No defenses, no pretenses. Passion and Respect versus mere Stimulation? No contest.
“Judgment of the Moon and Stars” is a symphonette, with Joni’s sonata-esque piano, a wind ensemble and a rap about the inside of the deaf and blaring skull of Beethoven: “It’s the judgment of the moon and stars/Your solitary path,” she says of the great Sagittarian. The song ends this searing record on a weird but hopeful tone, like a pep talk to a memory.
Got a hole in your heart? For the Roses will cost you about four bucks and it won’t cure you, but shit, it’s good salve. If it came in a can, was a little greasy and smelled OK, I’d rub a little on my forehead, over the prefrontal lobe, where the third eye lives.