|1. Tin Angel|
|2. Chelsea Morning|
|3. I Don't Know Where I Stand|
|4. That Song About The Midway|
|5. Roses Blue|
|6. The Gallery|
|7. I Think I Understand|
|8. Songs To Aging Children Come|
|9. The Fiddle And The Drum|
|10. Both Sides Now|
'Clouds' is, in my estimation, a weak link in Joni Mitchell's early works, but that criticism must be tempered by the recognition that 'Ladies of the Canyon', 'Blue', and 'For the Roses' are all classics of the era. It should also be noted that the album does include what may well be Joni's finest composition, 'Both Sides, Now', which is to Mitchell what 'Like a Rolling Stone' or 'Blowin' In the Wind' is to Bob Dylan: a defining composition. Judy Collins, whose status as a performer was advanced well beyond Mitchell's at the time, turned 'Both Sides, Now' into a Top Ten hit, but despite her undeniable vocal talents the charting version has nothing on the take Mitchell offers here. Interestingly Collins also took another of Mitchell's songs from this disc, 'Chelsea Morning', and parlayed it into another hit song.
Sad to say, most of the rest of 'Clouds' does not live up to these two quality tracks. The one exception is the a capella 'The Fiddle and the Drum'. Mitchell's stark delivery of this thoughtful, persuasive composition draws even greater poignancy to an anti-war song not steeped in anger, as most anti-war songs are, but in self-contemplation. Two key verses in the song, "and I ask you why", and "so we ask you please" alternate twice in four stanzas. In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam conflict, the first question was looming deep in the psyche of America, especially those most likely to be listening to Mitchell, and the second question was provided a lyrical response: "find the peace and the star" and "trade the handshake for the fist". The song doesn't demean the war-maker, but draws him to a higher calling. Like Mitchell's 'Woodstock', the attempt is to turn the bomber planes into butterflies above our nation.
The remaining songs on 'Clouds' have melodies that are less distinct, and lyrics that are less compelling than what we are use to from Mitchell, or deal with themes intimate and personal to Mitchell, but perhaps of less consequence to the typical listener. 'Roses Blue', for example, deals with a woman's descent into "mysterious devotions", such as Tarot card reading and Zen. Many of the songs of course deal with Mitchell's favorite topic: romantic entanglements and the nuances therein. All are draped in Mitchell's trademark piano or guitar accompaniment. In fact, there are no credits to contributing musicians on any of the tracks.
In assessing 'Clouds' I'm tempted to tap that familiar bumper sticker that says, "A bad day ________ (fishing, shopping, etc.) is better than a good day at work", because a weak Joni Mitchell album is better than what most artists produce in a good day in the studio. It's all relative, and it's instructive to note that Joni has never produced anything inconsequential or lacking gravity and substance. Lyrics are included in this, one of Mitchell's few early works available in a High Definition configuration (go configure).
Clouds, on the other hand, introduced a more wide-open Joni, her soaring soprano far freer than on the debut, with simpler song and lyrical structure and a mountain-spring-water-purity to the recording after Dave Crosby's muddy castle-fortress echo. Once again, the arrangements consist mainly of singer and guitar, although her voice is doubled and trebled more often, and the playing is closer to campfire strumming than on Song to a Seagull. The songs on Clouds convey a lush romanticism made heartbreaking and wistful by tales of love that is at turns found, lost, uncertain, or doomed. The album also unveils her own interpretations of several of her standards - "Tin Angel," "Chelsea Morning," "I Don't Know Where I Stand," "Both Sides Now." The playing and lyrics are Joni at her most straightforward, and her voice is at its gorgeous best on some of the tracks.
Although I love this album, I would rank it below several of her other pre-"Don Juan" discs - it is certainly my least favorite of her first period (the straightforward acoustic period, coinciding with her first four albums). It doesn't have the curious charm of the debut or the soul-deep passion of Blue. Ladies in the Canyon has a similar mood, but with far better arrangements and songwriting. Her singing on some of the songs here - "Tin Angel" and "The Fiddle and the Drum" stand out - is a rehash of her glum alto affectations on much of the debut. She's better off when she climbs up into the high end of her range (away with those philistines who consider her top end unlistenable), especially on "That Song about the Midway," in which Joni's high C's send haunted tingles down my spine. "Chelsea Morning" certainly conveys a certain joyful ebulliance, but of Joni's "token happy songs" on her early albums ("Night in the City," "Big Yellow Taxi," "Carey") I find it the weakest.
Clouds is, of course, home to "Both Sides Now," which is arguably Joni's signature song. Melodically gorgeous and lyrically reflective, it seems to draw all of her epic romantic experiences into a sorrowful lesson - "I really don't know love/life at all."