Saturday, January 9, 2010

"A Case of You" by Joni Mitchell (1971)

Truth be told, I’m not all that impressed by Joni Mitchell. Perhaps it’s that at times I find her sincerity insincere, or it’s just that the iconoclast in me rebels against the reverence with which so many people view her.

More to the point, it’s probably that that reverence raised my expectations just a little too high, especially when in the 80s, what you had was 80s Joni, which is not the most pleasant of sensations.

This, i.e. the “Blue” album, is meant to be the starting-off point for Joni, but I reckon it’s an acquired taste. She sings like a child, plays guitar like a child and leaves all of her songs as frustratingly half-finished as Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”. The very definition of twee, it created legions of wide-eyed ingénues pouring their hearts over their six-string acoustics. Somehow, it’s the music of slumber parties, of girls clumsily expressing feelings they have but can’t identify.

So why is it not rubbish? Why is it, in fact, amazing? Well, I’m not sure, really, but I reckon it’s got something to do with that melody: indelible to say the least, on first it doesn’t resonate at all, but at the strangest points thereafter it reasserts itself in your memory. That childish three-string guitar line manages to haunt and ensnare at the same time.

Her poetry is, again, the poetry of the angsty high-school girl, yet in the same way that mawkish poetry can still touch, it is still beautiful, filled with a handful of great lines, involving such subjects as the devil, paint, the northern star. All set in a backwoods bar in some place presumably very, very cold in her homeland Canada, whose name Joni trills in the song, sending up our backs that queer shiver of embarrassed pride that we Canadians have come to call patriotism (I can’t imagine Americans would ever react in the same uncomfortable way at a musical mention of their homeland).

It all comes together in the chorus, though, where her voice trills in a way that will turn off as many as it will clue in, fingers squeakily sliding up the guitar neck as the voice squeakily slides up into a falsetto, and the awe-inspiring conflation of the blood of Jesus, the wine at the bar and the soul of the song’s subject.

Stunned into reverent silence by that beautiful chorus, the listener suddenly finds it all coming into place – this is music with no distance whatsoever between performer and listener. Joni seems so amateurish because those who we actually know in our real lives are amateurs too. She could be sitting on the edge of someone’s bed in the upstairs of a suburban house, or on a wooden barstool in the empty bar of the first verse. This is art as in the opposite of artifice, and all the more touching when you realise how readily Joni Mitchell is associated with artifice.
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