Tuesday, January 28, 2020
Ladies of the Canyon
After the initial enthusiasm of starting my series of The Hundred Greatest Albums, with each album individually being the single greatest album ever made, I tailed off for a bit. I am surprised now to find that it has been a month and a half since my last one. But during most of that time I have known that my next album was going to be this: Joni Mitchell's Ladies of the Canyon.
It's just that there was a lot to say.
Somewhere around the turn into the 1980's I was convinced of the abiding glory of all things and culture of the 1960's. One of the small benefits of this was that the used and slightly scratched albums of this era thickly populated the discount bins of the local record stores.
I was a teen of very little money, so this was an important detail. And Oz Records, on Topanga Canyon Blvd, had a bin of used records for ten cents each.
Ten cents was cheap even back then. I could afford 10 cent records! I mean, not that I didn't still have to think about it. Dimes didn't grow on trees. Even now the little things aren't exactly for the taking.
But when I came upon a copy of Ladies of the Canyon for ten cents I didn't actually have to think about it very much. Mainly I just had to wonder if somehow it was in there by mistake.
I guess it wasn't since no one stopped me from buying it.
Now a question I have for myself is, how did I know that this was a special treasure that I was lucky to find? After all, it was my first Joni Mitchell album. What reference made me aware that this was an unbelievable find?
Through the murky shadows of time I can discern no clear answers. All I know is I excitedly took home my freakishly cheap treasure, hoping the scratches weren't too bad. I put it on the stereo, and listened.
Destiny? Is all art destiny?
Though it was strange. Not like I would have thought it would be back then.
Her voice was so... soprano. Like a line held way up high. It wasn't like folk really, or pop, or rock. It was kind of old and modern. Even now it seems unique, belonging to nothing else, individual, like art is supposed to be.
The songs were so... understandable.
Even though they were kind of complex.
And because the voice was so high it didn't seem like they'd be so... tuneful. But wonderfully they were, I don't know, something past catchy, something, all, you know, up in your heart, cutting through everything else.
And every single song seemed to take you to another world and let you live a moment in another place.
At first these songs were like stories, or still lifes, but then they were all... feelings. Ecological disaster as a metaphor for lost love. Dreams of a better world, but almost like an elegy already, even as its dreamed and pined for. Something about what art is supposed to be but maybe is and maybe isn't.
There's mostly piano in this album, and a spareness in how it's put together that feels like it's thought up idly, on the spot. But it's paired with immaculate, intricate, and wildly original vocals and phrasing that makes one realize that these are mastercrafted songs, woven with every thread accounted for, a work of absolute resounding genius.
Lately I, and at my house, we, have seen a few interviews with Joni Mitchell, and they are not really exactly pleasant, perhaps a bit painful to watch. There's something that's a little bitter, or hard. Something almost self-important but focused on all the wrong things. I'd rather throw those away if I can. Maybe, I hope, she, in her ambition for it, is at her worst talking about her work. Or maybe there is a terrible wedge between art and the people who make it. Maybe every great success pays a price.
Maybe magic never belongs to us anyway.
Maybe Joni Mitchell taught me half of everything I know about that.