Rainy Day Woman

Clive James

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Joni Mitchell’s work reached a peak on her second album, Clouds. Her personal image peaked (if an image can do that) at about the time of her third album, Ladies of the Canyon — an album which, while in places maintaining the level of the second, didn’t really improve on it, and so ought to be thought of as a plateau rather than a peak. Still, critical estimates of rock music don’t get much of a look in against the pressure of fashion; a fact which wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t that fashion makes images, and images are cages.

The Mitchell image has two main elements, one charming and the other rather less so. The charming element is the general aura (drawn from the looser detail of her own work) of pressed wildflowers, hand-crafted dulcimers, tiger-lilies in the loo and neurotic barefoot walks in the rain — an aura made actual in the paintings on her album covers, which are art in roughly the way that I am a Dutchman. The less than charming element is her notoriety as a kind of universal girlfriend of the superstars, the Lou Andreas-Salomé of the rock culture: this notoriety has been drummed up and well rubbed in by the rock press itself, applying the double standard in a way which any sensitive man must find entirely vicious.

The two elements combine to form the sort of compound which the cloddish find mysterious — ‘mystery’ being the furthest allowable limit of the feminine. The lovely lady ends up in the same bag (or is it canyon) with Nico, who in cold fact deploys scarcely an atom of the talent Mitchell possesses in such abundance. It’s fervently to be hoped — by one admirer at any rate — that she can do as good a job of

breaking her image as she did of bucking the system: but as Bob Dylan found, auto-iconoclasm doesn’t come as easy as telling the middlemen to chase themselves.

At the moment she is in some danger of relaxing into the role of a voice of her generation — in which role she may produce more of those ringing certainties which made ‘Woodstock’ and ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ into such cosy sing-alongs, but can scarcely pursue her more interesting bent for awkward, bravely exploratory, psychological realism. Her tensile strength is all in her ability to doubt, and her voice is least her own when it sounds like everybody’s.

It will bear emphasizing, though, that Mitchell is the most likely candidate for retaining her individuality in the face of the heavily censorious pressure enforced by ‘success’ in the rock culture: in this, so far, she has been more masculine than the men — more of a mind, more of an artist. Her forthcoming fourth album should be indicative in this respect. But even if it turned out to be no good at all, we would still have the other three: three albums which can be thought of as a studio-cum-gallery in which some of the best possibilities of the modern song have been realized.

Mitchell’s grasp of language is usually certain but is subject to the odd relaxation. Often the relaxation is covered by an interesting stroke in the music, suspending the listener’s critical faculty at the price of arousing it in retrospect. The relation of words to music is the most difficult aesthetic problem a song offers, but on the practical level two simple things can be said: first, that in the long run the music will intensify linguistic damage rather than conceal it; and second, that a composer-lyricist is always in danger of scarificing linguistic to musical form. Like every composer-lyricist in the rock culture except Randy Newman (and not excepting Dylan), Mitchell suffers from both troubles.

It needs to be said at once, though, that when her grip on language is tight, she produces a quality of articulation nobody else can quite match. This famous coup from her hit song ‘Both Sides Now’ is a good example:

But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

Every phrase here is an ordinary pebble washed smooth by the tides of the common language: selected, grouped and set, they make jewellery. As with Jaime Robbie Robertson, the basis of her technique is a selective ear for speech — but for the whole range of speech, and not, as with him, for just the rich but narrow seam of the nostalgic/demotic.

In ‘Both Sides Now’, the essential drive of the music is in parallel with the language — the musical topography makes a point-for-point overlay with the ordinary conversational stresses of the wording. With a few exceptions (in modern times, especially Dylan) this parallelism has been the accepted manner in which language and music have been made to accompany one another, but what is particulary interesting in Mitchell is how far she is prepared to go in matching them up, and the tension she is able to produce in what ought to be a placid unification.

Much of this tension is produced by her ability to unfold a musical-linguistic form which simply (or rather, complexly) goes on longer than the listener can well credit, and in which the emotional content is hugely multiplied by the effect of perizia — the display of sheer ability.

A fine example of this is the song ‘Willy’ on Ladies of the Canyon. As well as being an unnervingly brilliant piece of work, this song is also useful as an illustration of my earlier point that Mitchell’s grasp of language is fallible: just how far and how fast this fallibility fades into insignificance beside the magisterial assurance of the song’s formal properties is a question I prefer to dodge.

Usually her strength, Mitchell’s psychological acuteness becomes a weakness when she pushes it towards abstract significance: Ladies of the Canyon contains several worrying examples — expecially ‘The Priest’ in which the language is in tatters and a galloping anthropomorphism regales us with the mental picture of two pairs of eyeballs daftly chatting. Gallantry bids me refrain from dwelling on the Ladies of the Canyon themselves, except to warn the reader that he must at all costs steer clear of Estrella (‘Songs like tiny hammers hurled/ At bevelled mirrors in empty halls’) or else run the risk of getting his head split open. Apart from ‘Willy’, the best thing on the album is ‘For Free’, a pioneer insight into the condition of success which accepts the alienation imposed by stardom — a message to herself which she’ll need to go on remembering.

Most of the real Mitchell gold is on Clouds (‘When I first saw your gallery/ I liked the ones of ladies’ — perfect speech, perfectly musical) which largely avoids the tendency, shared by the first and third albums, to create poeticized abstractions at the price of eroding the song’s concrete base. Unless she can do an even more thorough job of breaking out of the rock culture’s damaging working conditions (it’s just as dangerous to owe someone an album as it is to owe him a tour) we’re unlikely to get such a concentration of good songs on one album again.

But even a few good ones each time would be more than worth the money. Like Newman, she’s already facing the challenge of growing old in the business — which in itself will be a subject suited to her talent. That it is a talent, and not just the fey expression of a life-style, no ear can miss.

Clive James

Ink, 31st July 1971
© Clive James
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