“We are stardust, we are golden and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.” – Joni Mitchell
Music and heartache are never far apart, but when it comes to folk music, in particular, solemnity and songs form a harmonious match made in matrimony hell. Nowhere have those ill-fated wedding bells sounded more heavenly than on in some of Joni Mitchell’s finest moments, of which there are many. However, for today we have plucked a short bouquet of five to simply brighten your day.
While her own artwork itself may have cast her legacy in the legion of a croaked from cigarette smoke mope who sings of melancholic shades of blue, in actual fact, her lyricism is also as much of a technicolour encapsulation of life as anyone else’s. Her palette dabbles in wit and wonder, candid and cloaked, and she always remains beautifully self-aware of the picture she is painting.
With these songs, she has influenced everyone from Prince and Paul Simon to Lana Del Rey and Led Zeppelin, who lauded her for her “weird chords”. As she said of her own evolving and swirling oeuvre: “My early work is kind of fantasy, which is why I sort of rejected it,” she told Clive Davis in a recent interview.
She quickly ditched that style as she declares, “I started scraping my own soul more and more and got more humanity in it. It scared the singer-songwriters around me; the men seemed to be nervous about it, almost like [Bob] Dylan plugging in and going electric. Like, ‘Does this mean we have to do this now?’ But over time, I think it did make an influence. It encouraged people to write more from their own experience.”
Please feel free to gorge yourself on the comforting five below; we’ll certainly be back with second helpings.
Five genius Joni Mitchell lyrics to add poetry to your day:
‘A Case of You’
“Just before our love got lost you said
I am as constant as a northern star
And I said, “Constantly in the darkness,
Where’s that at?
If you want me, I’ll be in the bar.”
The intro to ‘A Case of You’ is a moment of such brilliance that I am more than happy to assert that it is one of the ten greatest opening verses without any due forethought regarding the gilded list that it would be contained within.
The song exhibits a sort of irascible wit that makes you pity Graham Nash who was on the receiving end of such cutting jibes during their parting, and yet, as ever with Joni, it retains has a dignified air and wisdom.
‘Both Sides Now’
“I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions that I recall
I really don’t know love
Really don’t know love at all.”
There are very few love songs that have gripped the thorny old subject with a clenched fist quite like the unflinching ‘Both Sides Now’. There are over 1465 known recordings of the song, each of which is a mark of the esteem that fellow songsmiths hold it in, with more than a few calling it the greatest song ever written.
With beautiful imagery it achieves one of the most satisfying things in all art: it achieves exactly what it set out to do and looks at the love from both sides.
‘I Had a King’
“I had a king in a tenement castle
Lately he’s taken to painting the pastel walls brown.”
With ‘I Had a King’ Joni Mitchell does what she does best, abscond to afar and observe the folly of man with empathy. There is a fairy tale theme at play as a dream promised by a lover devolves into drab discontentment as some unnamed king rushes around chucking dirt on everything.
While she never loses sight of the details as she drifts into the mode of a voyeur, she still manages to rise above the melodrama and provide us with a more owlish fable.
“Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed
Little green, have a happy ending.”
It’s a highly notable asset of Joni Mitchell’s songwriting that she is so candidly vulnerable that her lyrics can also be shrill to listen to. Blue was written at a time when she had essentially fled from flailing relationships to live free in Europe, but evidently, letters were still passed back and forth.
These moments of profound openness are a refreshing insight that we are all fallible, and Mitchell makes that clear in the most poetic way.
‘Rainy Night House’
“You are a refugee
From a wealthy family
You gave up all the golden factories
To see, who in the world you might be.”
Once more Joni’s ability to seemingly observe from afar returns. In some ways, the subject matter of ‘Rainy Night House’ is almost a gender reversal of Bob Dylan’s iconic fall from grace of a faux champagne socialist with ‘Like a Rolling Stone’.
She shines here with her ability to say things so plainly without losing poetry and so uncompromisingly without ever sounding cynical.