Top critical review
Joni tuning up
July 15, 2004
Joni Mitchell's 'Clouds' is her second album, released in 1969 after 'Song To a Seagull' (originally titled 'Joni Mitchell') which was released one year previous. However a review of the liner notes reveal that the copyrights for 8 of the 10 songs date back as far as 1966 ('I Think I Understand'), concentrate in 1967 ('Tin Angel', 'Chelsea Morning', 'I Don't Know Where I Stand', 'Songs To Aging Children's Come', and 'Both Sides, Now'), and finish up in 1968 ('That Song About the Midway' and 'Roses Blue'). So only two songs, 'The Gallery' and 'The Fiddle and the Drum' date from the same year as the album's release. Thus, what we are getting is an interesting cross-section of the development of Joni Mitchell as a composer, a thoughtful poet in a turbulent era.
'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).