Joni Mitchell: subverting expectation line by line, word by word and phoneme by phoneme

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the music of Joni Mitchell recently, and I wanted to share an observation. It’s not news that her music is all about subverting expectations — see for example the ubiquitous use of the unresolved suspensions that she terms “chords of inquiry”. Here I want to draw attention to a few places where she makes consecutive parts of her lyrics contradict, or at least reinterpret, each other.


Consider for example these lines, from the opening verse of Coyote, the song that opens the Hejira album:

There’s no comprehending
Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes and the lips you can get
And still feel so alone
And still feel related

Lines 1 and 2 set up an expectation that the song is about intimacy. Then line 3 (“And still feel so alone”) immediately subverts that and tells us that, on the contrary, this is all about alienation — about how physical proximity does not mean emotional closeness. Then straight away line 4 (“And still feel related”) flips that interpretation on its head, setting the scene instead for a song that’s about the contrasts between intimacy and loneliness. In three lines, she has set three different expectations for the song.

This density and richness is not an exception. Consider these lines from the same album’s A Strange Boy:

We got high on travel
And we got drunk on alcohol
And on love, the strongest poison and medicine of all

If anything, this is even more dense. It changes direction three times in three lines. From the first part of line 1, “We got high”, we assume some kind of drug is involved; but no, we got high “on travel”. So then when we hear line 2, “And we got drunk”, we assume it’s going to be on love; but no, we got drunk “on alcohol”. The big-R Romantic is brought immediately down to earth. But then line 3 turns it all on its head once more. We did get drunk on love, after all; both poison and medicine.

This is superb writing because it creates and resolves tension with an intensity that comes from the chaotic tumble of reconsiderations. These lines (and those from Coyote above) don’t just tell us a conclusion, they show us the process of reaching it — or indeed of failing to reach a conclusion. They give us the complexity of an inner life, rather than just the sterile final form of the ideas. Had Joni written “And we got drunk on love”, as we expect to hear, the couplet would work. But by making us wait another half-line for the arrival of love, she does more than just tease us: she shows us her own indecision and ambivalence.

Then there is this, from All I Want, the opening song of 1971’s Blue album:

I want to make you feel better
I want to make you feel … free

This one, you really need to hear sung: the second line is sung as though “I want to make you feel” is a complete unit. The meaning is: I want you to feel something, not just to sit there inert and unresponsive. But then, held off so long that it is almost a separate line of its own, comes the word “free”. A single word transforms the meaning of the line that it ends. It wasn’t a cry of frustration after all; it was a heartfelt wish to be a blessing.

Or, rather, it’s neither one of those things nor the other; but the combination of both. By holding back that one word, Joni has given us two ideas for the price of one, and consequently an emotionally richer song.

All that from one word! Can she improve on that?


Oh, but she can! Check out this couplet from Same Situation, on the Court and Spark album:

Caught in my struggle for higher achievements
And my search for love I don’t seem to see

Here, in two lines, Joni captures the conflict that lies at the heart of almost all her work: the coexisting desires for committed love and for the freedom to pursue her art. But in this formulation, she sounds self-pitying: “love I don’t seem to see” suggests that the choice is taken away from her by circumstances.

But no! You have to listen carefully to this one: as the word “see” drifts away into the distance, she articulates one more sound: “z”. And the line is transformed into:

And my search for love I don’t seem to sieze

She’s not blaming circumstances; she’s accepting her own culpability in failing to build a relationship that works. The love is there to be seen, and indeed seized; she’s not seizing it.

This is much more than just a clever trick. As so often with Joni, the emergence of the second meaning represents not a correction but a tension. She’s not clear even in her own mind whether her inability to find love is because it’s not there for her or because she isn’t taking hold of it. Both meanings remain, each complementing the other.

This kind of thing is why I love Joni’s records even more than those of Paul Simon, Carole King, Richard Shindell or Dar Williams. I’ve used the word “density” several times here, but that’s exactly right. You get more for your money with Joni Mitchell. Every song offers multiple layers of meaning, each subverting or complementing the previous and the next.


14 responses to “Joni Mitchell: subverting expectation line by line, word by word and phoneme by phoneme

  1. Thank you for this post. I think of Joni Mitchell as one of the greatest singer-songwriters, but I don’t often think about what it is that makes her so powerful.

    I would add to what you’ve said that Mitchell’s delivery. It is remarkable how she is able sing in such a way that the tension is preserved, rather than coming down on one side or the other and it makes many of her songs very difficult to cover.

    I was recently listening to two recordings of the Townes Van Zandt song “Waiting Around To Die.” One by Van Zandt, the other a cover. Listening to them back-to-back, it’s clear that the cover is terrible. It’s faithful to the original, but they lack some characteristic that Townes Van Zandt has and which the song demands. I’d argue that the difference is that Van Zandt is so deeply committed to the emotions of the song that he doesn’t have to do anything to emphasize them or over-emote.The level of emotional intensity in the song is so high that if, as a listener, your suspension of disbelief cracks at all the song just becomes silly* and, for me, that’s what happens with the cover. Every time their performance puts an underline beneath the sadness of the song, I lose my emotional connection to it.

    I feel like the same is true of Joni Mitchell — that she never needs to “sell” or perform the emotion in her songs. For lack of a better phrase she’s “inside” the songs. The sudden shifts of meaning and mood that you feel organic rather than showy or tricky.

    For somebody who was less skilled as a singer, there can be a tendency to lean into the emotional curves of a song — to start shifting the mood of the performance just slightly in advance of the lyrics, and that wouldn’t work at all with lines like the ones you’re quoting.

    * I’d mention “Sam Stone” by John Prine as song which is just on the edge of that same precipice. Most of the time it works for me, but sometimes it feels so over the top in it’s bleakness that I can’t take it seriously. By contrast I don’t have that problem with, “Angel From Montgomery” which feels searing in its understatement — there’s no need to emphasize a line like, “How the hell can a person go to work in the morning / And come home in the evening and have nothing to say.” Just let it speak for itself.

  2. I think Marco Argiro says it all when he says “I tried my best to put my own spin on this already perfect song”. There’s only one direction that’s going to go. But you’re right that the cover loses the compelling quality of the original by over-emoting, and also by not having the courage to stick with the very sparse arrangement all the way through. When the bass and drums kick in for the second verse, the song withers under their influence. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Blue — Joni’s most emotionally harrowing album — is also very sparse, most songs being just her voice to her own accompaniment on guitar, piano or dulcimer.)

  3. To take another example, that’s very different stylistically — have I mentioned how much I love Beth Orton’s version of “Frankie” (one of the many versions of “Frankie and Johnny” or, in this case, Frankie and Albert)? It’s an interesting case of making fairly extreme stylistic choices which end up serving the song quite well.

    When I listened to it for the first time I thought at first that it was weirdly, and annoyingly affected, but then, about 2 minutes in, I fell in love with what she’s doing. It is stylized, but I feel like she found the right tone to use for a line like:

    Frankie shot old Albert and she shot him three or four times
    Let me blow the smoke of my gun and see if Albert’s died.

    and rather than trying to shift into that tone, she starts off with it from the very beginning. It feels like a mismatch with the opening lines, “Frankie was a good girl / everybody knows she paid $100 for Albert’s suit of clothes.” But I think that mismatch is worth it because it means that when you get to the heart of the song it doesn’t feel like she’s trying for an effect — it’s just they way she’s singing it.

    I bring that up because I think it relates to the problem Marco Argiro has with “Waiting Around To Die” and the problem that Joni Mitchell can pose — in doing a cover it’s easy to think, “I wonder how I can achieve that result from a different starting point — within my style,” But it may not be possible; it may be the case that the only way to arrive at point B is to start at point A (which is to say, that the only way to get Joni Mitchell’s results is to sing it the way that she does). Some songs are much more open to different approaches, but some aren’t.

    (On that note, did you ever listen to the Joni Mitchell cover album that I mentioned a while back. I think she does a good job, and I’d agree with the line in the allmusic review, “Her versions will lead listeners back to Joni Mitchell’s recordings and one will come away with good feelings towards both renditions.”)

    Also, just to tease a little bit — I was recently looking at the lyrics of a completely unrelated song which also achieves remarkable “density” and I might post it here as well, because I’d love to talk about it, and it offers some interesting opportunities for analyzing songwriting but I want to wait a day or two because it would be a change of subject.

  4. I think the word you might want is “morphemes” rather than “phonemes”? The morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a word, as “est” is to “smallest”, or “s” pluralizes “morpheme”.

  5. this is beautifully written. there is a problem with the lyric for the same situation. it is no see changed to seize. the lyric was written as
    “And my search for love
    That don’t seem to cease.”

  6. Ceeg, no, I think I do mean phoneme here. She emits a single unit of pronunciation, and it changes the existing meaning — which is different from emitting a unit of meaning. “See” -> “Seize” is a radical change.

    Laurel, I should have mentioned this interpretation in the post. I’ve seen “Love that don’t seem to cease” in some transcriptions, but that’s not what I hear.

  7. Your observation of JM lyrics is interesting….being a great fan of hers since the 70’s, we are particular about her lyrics being quoted correctly… the last line you misquoted actually is this: “….caught in my struggle for higher achievements and my search for love that don’t seem to cease.” Her words are sometimes like walking through thick forests….it’s hard to understand all that she says on the records!

  8. I am commenting about the couplet from “The Same Situation” on the album Court and Spark. I have “The Complete Poems and Lyrics released by Warner Brothers with Joni’s permission and with her name on the book’s copyright.
    Caught in my struggle for higher achievement
    And my search for love
    That don’t seem to cease.
    This is how the lyrics were written in the above mentioned book. So the debate continues. But my source says That don’t seem to cease.

  9. Pingback: Desert island albums #1: Joni Mitchell — Hejira (1976) | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  10. Pingback: What I’ve been listening to in 2016 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  11. Regarding Strange Boy,I was interested in a guy with Aspergers many years ago,and the song resonated strongly with me.
    Strange boy,sees the traffic as sets of waves,the immaturity and failure to comply with normal behaviour.
    We are still great friends,and Joni’s song helped me understand how differently we all can be wired.

  12. Thanks, Ruth, that’s a really interesting insight.

  13. Marvellous. Thankyou for articulating thoughts unhatched.

    Same Situation encapsulates her poetry and her constant self-questioning like no other, except, perhaps, Hejira.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.