by Debbie Clark
Joni Mitchell’s fifth album For the Roses falls between her two biggest commercial and critical successes– 1971’s Blue and 1974’s Court and Spark – and acts as a bridge or a transition between the different genres of those albums. The announcement of 2007’s entries into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry read that “In ‘For the Roses,’ Joni Mitchell took the confessional lyrics of her critically-acclaimed “Blue” album and infused them with touches of jazz,” and went on to say that the album was “the album in which all the elements of her creative palette are in perfect balance.” Even though Mitchell is Canadian, For the Roses was thought of as part of America’s oral history and was added to the registry along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller and the first trans-Atlantic broadcast from 1925. Stephen Davis wrote a glowing review of For the Roses in Rolling Stone in 1973, saying “As a musician she uses a certain kind of sprung rhythm and lyrical beauty that is transcendingly, touchingly romantic without ever being common.”
But the year in question here is 1972, and 1972 was a rather eventful year in history – Nixon visited China, 11 Israeli athletes were killed in the terrorist attack on the Olympic Village in Munich, Nixon ordered the Christmas bombing of Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal began – but none of that is directly addressed in this album. Mitchell would become more vocal about social and environmental issues later in her career, but on For the Roses, only two songs come close to social commentary: “Banquet” and “Electricity.”
“Banquet” is the album’s opener and features Mitchell accompanying herself on piano. This sparse arrangement highlights lyrics such as “Some get the gravy/And some get the gristle/Some get the marrow bone/And some get nothing/Though there’s plenty to spare” so their message of society’s inequality comes across clear as Mitchell’s unadorned voice. There is also a hint of environmentalism in the lyrics “looking for a clean sky” and “paper plates and Javex bottles on the tide.” Javex is a Canadian brand of bleach, the bottles of which are used by fishermen to locate and retrieve crab and shrimp traps, according to the footnotes to this song’s lyric page on Mitchell’s website, jonimitchell.com. Later in the album, Mitchell returns to the environmentalism theme in the relatively accessible and upbeat “Electricity.” In this song, she sings the praises of the rural country life as an escape from the electric life of society. In the country, she can be “Out of touch with the breakdown/Of this century.” It was probably one of the first songs about disconnecting. But activism is not the predominant theme of For the Roses. Some songs are purely about love. “See You Sometime” is about a lover is being unfaithful but she’d “still like to see you sometime.” The song also refers to her separation from her first husband, Chuck Mitchell, in the line “I’m not ready to change my name again.” And she didn’t; she made his name and a variant of her middle name into her stage name.
Along with love and the rare social commentary, the album covers a range of more personal and universal topics – sometimes all in one song. Though “Lessons in Survival” is a love song with sparse yet clear metaphors like “magnet and iron/the souls,” it also touches on Mitchell’s love of nature and desire for a simpler life than the famous one Mitchell is living. The title song “For the Roses” focuses on that fame and the reality of being in the music industry and utilizes surprising metaphors and descriptions, such as “poet” instead of singer and “circulate his soul” instead of make his song popular, and Mitchell’s description of all the “good” and luxurious aspects of fame is followed by the lyric “and it’s just you up there/getting them to feel like that.” It’s a lonely and melancholy song that’s almost circular with its repetition of the song’s first two lines in the last verse and then ends with more nature imagery as the sounds she mistook for applause were caused by the natural world outside. “Blonde in the Bleachers” also touches on this theme with its commentary on the problem of competing with the audience for affections of a “rock ‘n’ roll man.”
The jazzy “Let the Wind Carry Me” – with its almost repetitive lines with slight word changes and subtle changes in the meaning – shifts the focus from dealing with fame to Mitchell’s conflicting emotions about stability and conformity. Part of her wants the traditional life she rebelled against as a child, but she knows it’s just a passing feeling, exemplified in the final lines: “And I want to settle/And raise a child up with somebody/But it passes like the summer/I’m a wild seed again/Let the wind carry me.” This line also alludes to the daughter she had by her college boyfriend and had to give up early in her career at the beginning of her short-lived marriage. The penultimate song, “Woman of Heart and Mind,” also evokes a sense of disjointed or displaced maternal feelings in the lines “no child to raise/You come to me like a little boy” – and features Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young billed as “Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.” This album came out seven years after the birth of her child, and these two songs show that while Mitchell has been denied the opportunity to raise her daughter, she hasn’t forgotten about her.
Then there are songs that don’t fit into a theme but rather tell a story or paint a picture – Mitchell’s other artistic bent. “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire” is the first song on the album to have hints of jazz by adding a saxophone to the guitar and vocals, and Mitchell’s sophisticated lyrics tell the story of an experience with heroin: “Bashing in veins for peace” is both a play on the phrase “bashing in brains” and an imaginative metaphor for shooting up, “Lady Release” is heroin itself, and the subtle variation in the last line of the chorus show the person’s devolution from possibility to indifference to certainty. “Barangrill” continues in the jazzy vein with flutes, a bass or cello and possibly a bari sax, and it just tells the story of trying to find what is probably a “bar and grill” – and maybe finding for something else along the way.
The only single off the album ostensibly doesn’t have a theme besides Mitchell’s label wanted her to write a hit song for the radio. So she wrote “You Turn Me on, I’m a Radio,” and it climbed to number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 list. With a Dylan-esque harmonica featured at the beginning performed by Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, a consistent melodic line, and a radio metaphor in every stanza, “You Turn Me on, I’m a Radio” is accessible but also imaginative and unexpected. Mitchell succeeded in satisfying her label’s demands without sacrificing her style or the trademarks that make her unique. The final song on the album also defies categorization. Originally titled “Letter for the Deaf Master,” “Judgement of the Moon and Stars” is a letter in folk-jazz sonata form that uses what sounds like most of the instruments found in an orchestra along with Mitchell’s piano and vocals. Stephen Davis wrote in his 1973 “Rolling Stone” review that this song ends the album on “a weird but hopeful tone, like a pep talk to a memory.”
Joni Mitchell is respected as a gifted songwriter and has a distinctive style of composition. This unique approach to tuning and structure stems from contracting polio as a child. The biography on her website reads that to get around the affect that the disease had had on her fingers, Mitchell devised alternative tunings that became “a tool to break free of standard approaches to harmony and structure,” which is evident in every song on this album. On For the Roses, the folk rock of her earlier work is evident in the rich lyrical content and the “simple” duets with Mitchell and her piano or guitar, but you can detect the beginnings of the jazz influences in the saxes, brass, and other instruments featured in songs like “Blonde in The Bleachers,” “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire,” and “Barangrill,” but also in the fluid time signatures and improvisational, almost stream-of-consciousness feel of the melodies and lyrics. Her songs are unpredictable; even with her upbeat, fun, made-for-radio single “You Turn Me on, I’m a Radio,” you couldn’t pick it up and join in the first time you heard it. This is almost a detriment, in that all the songs start to blend together because you can’t remember any of the melodies to compare the current one to. But what does stay in your mind is the memory of the complex soundscapes and sophisticated poetry of Joni Mitchell’s For the Roses.