Joni Mitchell had numerous skills that made her stand out from her contemporaries. There are her unique guitar tunings that change from song to song, making it nearly impossible to replicate her catalogue with a 50-page user manual. There’s the ability to harmonise with herself through overdubbing, with each voice being crystal clear and right on pitch. And then there are the compositions, which sprawl between different sections and keys in ways that became increasingly elaborate and fantastical as her career progressed.
All that’s great, but what about when you take away the guitar tunings and remove most of the song that she wrote? No lush piano or any other instruments, just pure Joni Mitchell and her lyricism. Well, not surprisingly, that turns out to be pretty great too.
For the Roses was a fascinating transition point within Mitchell’s catalogue. Before she mostly moved away from folk music, the album nonetheless finds Mitchell discontent with the standard arrangement of just her voice and another instrument. She began to dabble in other genres (the country of ‘You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio’, the jazzier tones of ‘Woman of Heart and Mind’), as well as welcoming in other instrumental contributions as well (the rock and roll band of ‘Blonde in the Bleachers’).
But what sometimes gets lost in discussing Mitchell’s music is how direct her vocal style is. The occasional trills and melismas come and go, but Mitchell is the perfect purveyor of melody and lyrics. Take the eighth track on For the Roses, ‘Electricity’, as the layers of vocals create a heavenly bed for Mitchell’s central melody to rest on. Lyrics about getting mechanically fixed when your true calling is to the more natural setting fits in with the pastoral themes of the album, and the performance needs little more than the a cappella section to truly connect.
‘Electricity’ isn’t the greatest vocal performance or lyric writing venture of Mitchell’s career. Hell, it’s not even the best one on the album, as, for my money, that would be ‘See You Sometime’, just out of personal preference. But the amount of emotion, whether it be impassioned or detached, that Mitchell can fit into a few voices is almost otherworldly. She was just working on a different level in the early 1970s, somewhere that nobody else could touch.
Check out the isolated vocals for ‘Electricity’ down below.