Album Review: ‘For The Roses’ Joni Mitchell – A Sleeper Masterpiece

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Any album which followed Joni Mitchell’s groundbreaking 1971 album ‘Blue’, still considered to be her best by many, would have difficulty in competing with such brilliant, heartfelt songs and musicianship.

Predictably, Mitchell’s 1972 release of ‘For The Roses’ (Asylum), did indeed seem to underwhelm by comparison. Even the title of the album does not exactly inspire one as much as the emphatic ‘Blue’, unless you happened to be a gardener or a seeker of some bucolic escape. Nevertheless, I have to say I find this album something of a sleeper.

Unfair Comparisons

I, like many, first became aware of Joni Mitchell with songs like ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, songs which made you stop, listen and take notice. Then along came ‘Blue’ and the plaudits, rightly, went bananas. Then, at least to me at the time, a youngster barely in his teens, there seemed to be a bit of a lull. Suddenly it was 1974 and the wondrous ‘Court and Spark’ was released, another groundbreaking collections of songs. Somewhere in the middle of all that came ‘For The Roses’. It has only been over the last fifteen years or so that I have come to appreciate how good this album is.

And it turns out the album’s name and character did indeed indicate the singer songwriter’s partial retreat from the hurly burly of superstar life. So here are songs perhaps less intense than ‘Blue’, but reflective of a different inner life, the beginning of her more observational, anecdotal story telling songs which have become so much a trademark of her later career.

Retreat

The opening track ‘Banquet’ sets the tone firmly, yet gently, indicating her retreat from all the pandemonium, stepping down towards the shoreline and taking a wider philosophical look at life and all its absurdities. Here too I can sense the true beginning of her more jazz-folk inspired trajectory, followed up in the next acoustic guitar driven track, ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’.

If the first two tracks evoke a certain subjective melancholy, track three, the more upbeat ‘Barangril’, really brings out Mitchell’s great gift of taking an everyday snippet of daily life and turning it into a timeless masterpiece of modern Americana.

‘Lesson in Survival’ returns to the reflective melancholy, but beautifully so. Few songwriters, one would imagine, have ever been so well read. The wish for escape is overpowering. ‘Let the Wind Carry Me’ continues with the theme, but gives us more than a glimpse of parental influences, how they seem to us as we age when we realise Mum and Dad were not perfect either. I love the little jazzy flourishes with the voices and wind instruments in this song, something she would continue to perfect in later albums. In this song they evoke the whistles of steamers.

Wild Canadian Expanse

It has been said before (probably by me previously too) that Russian composers like Rachmaninov can’t help but sound like the vastness of the Russian Steppes. I think the same goes for more contemporary Canadian composers too, particularly Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. In ‘Let the Wind Carry Me’ I can hear the vast open plains of central Canada where she was brought up and also the equally wide Pacific Ocean off California.

‘For the Roses’, the title track, is an understated guitar song of exquisite guitar work and minimal arrangement, critiquing the lifestyle she has become accustomed to and which she is now eschewing. ‘See You Sometime’ is more straightforward, reflecting on former loves, their lifestyles, in a major key, leaving open the possibility of staying friends.

Transition Period

‘Electricity’ is a beautiful guitar track, spanning this transition period. ‘You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio’ might also have appeared on an earlier album, but served the purpose of being a catchy hit single from this album.

‘Blonde in the Bleachers’ definitely looks forward, another anecdotal snippet finding meaning: It transforms beautifully in the middle to a more soft rock number with sophistication. ‘Woman of Heart of Mind’ really does sound to me like it was composed a year or so prior to the album’s release – it is, nevertheless, beautiful and understated.

The final track, Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s tune)’, is probably the most sophisticated piano based track on the album, Joni leaving us typically with a philosophical view based on much reflection. The arrangement of wind and strings is also tasteful.

Overall, this is still one of my ‘go to’ albums. It helps me relax and reflect, probably the desire of the composer at this particular juncture in her life. It is generally understated and certainly not her best offering – yet it is still a great album in my view.

copyright Francis Barker 2020

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