Classic Album: Ain’t No Neil – Joni Mitchell’s For The Roses

Joni-Mitchell-For-The-Roses-81030In 1972, two Canadian musicians released amazing folk albums, both coincidentally featuring songs about heroin addicts. Despite the links between Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, listening to Harvest and For The Roses I feel like they were never really trying to play the same music. Everyone recognises that Joni’s voice is sublime and has inspired generations of songwriters, from Alela to Allessi’s Ark. Somehow though, after the experimental albums and years out of the live circuit, Joni lost critical approval in a way few of her male contemporaries did (the holy trinity: Bob, Neil, Leonard. They, too, made bad albums). Here’s a few reasons to revisit For The Roses:

Emotionally, Joni captures those ideal elements of “folk.” Whether that word means a specific sound or general authenticity is another matter. But her voice is undeniable, sometimes passionate and sometimes softly passive. It really struck me after reading an article about her use of harmonic registers (five different types, apparently). The strength and range is evident from the quick, almost spoken words at the start of ‘Barangrill’ to the light, drawn out lines of ‘Electricity’.

Technically, this album is much more than traditional American folk. The piano on ‘Banquet’ and the quiet, stifling yet striking guitar of the title track show how subtly jazz, R&B and blues have influenced her style. Joni displays classical skills on guitar and piano, as well as a deep understanding of song composition – the undervalued element of her later music – arguably unrivalled, except perhaps by Jackson Browne (who released his debut in 1972).

Joni’s lyrics are meaningful and self-reflective, like on ‘For The Roses’: “In some office sits a poet/And he trembles as he sings/And he asks some guy/To circulate his soul around/On your mark red ribbon runner.”

Lyrically, she was pushing past contemporary pop and folk without giving in to female stereotypes surrounding “relationship songs” (or whatever you want to call them) in rock music. The defiant ‘Woman of Heart and Mind’ is an admission of personal flaws and at the same an ode to independence: “I’m looking for affection and respect, a little passion…you want stimulation, nothing more.”

A quick look at online lists of 1972’s top chart hits should make us even more thankful for this album. There was the sticky patriotism of ‘American Pie’ and the excruciating electronic instrumental ‘Popcorn,’ which was covered by about a million different bands that year (why, why, WHY??) Amongst that ridiculousness Joni and Neil’s honesty, perhaps even naivety, of expression must’ve been refreshing. There were also Nilsson’s pukey/strangely-catchy ‘Without You,’ Derek & the Dominos’ great/self-indulgent ‘Layla’ and Young’s wonderful ‘Heart of Gold’. Shoot me for writing this, but all that manly philosophising about love and women and stuff can get annoying (yes, that reason for revisiting For The Roses is a tad biased). The boldness and brilliance of Joni’s lyricism should be considered in its own right, not simply categorised with Young, Dylan, etc. The way it recasts folk music in classical terms is beautiful, original, and…well, listen to the album…

Words: Alice Knapp