A work of maturity and humility that points to the absolute best that Mitchell has to offer, and a thrilling portend of her discography to come.
Joni Mitchell’s second album, Clouds, marks both a colossal leap forward from her nebulous debut and a transitional work anticipating her greatest classics. Gone is David Crosby’s raw production, replaced by a lush sound that radiates warmth and space. That’s all the more remarkable given the stripped-back nature of the music itself; Mitchell mostly performs with only her voice and guitar, with the occasional accompaniment of Stephen Stills, also on acoustic guitar, to round out her sound. Yet Clouds is an enveloping listen, a clear indication of Mitchell’s incredible ambition as a songwriter and arranger.
If Song to a Seagull introduced Mitchell as a writer of arcane subjects, her sophomore album found her dialing back her period trappings and instead funneling her elaborate poetry into the word choice itself. Mitchell’s writing here is impressionistic, dancing around a clear idea of what she’s singing about yet providing precise, fleeting snapshots of tactile details. In “Tin Angel,” a song about throwing away all the detritus carried over from past relationships in favor of a new romance, Mitchell describes “Letters from across the seas/ Roses dipped in sealing wax/ Valentines and maple leaves/ Tucked into paperback.” You can practically smell the objects she has preserved as talismans of past loves, the lingering sweetness and faint rot of it all. “That Song About the Midway,” which details Mitchell meeting and falling for Leonard Cohen, describes the immediate attraction by pointing out how the man “stood out like a ruby in a black man’s ear.” She has the most remarkable ability to pinpoint universal hopes, desires, even anxieties,. The latter is captured vividly in “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” where she nails the fear of worrying that one might like someone more than they like you when she cautiously, somewhat abashedly sings, “I picked up a pencil and wrote ‘I love you’ in my finest handwriting/ Wanted to send it but I don’t know where I stand.”
These songs weave in and out of these details, and Mitchell marries their story-like approaches with instrumentation that ebbs and flows with the lyrics’ moods to give the songs a richer, more immediate depth. “Chelsea Morning,” a spry number that details life at the Chelsea Hotel as a kind of artist utopia, is lilting and bright, the guitar bouncing along with Mitchell’s trilling vocals as she sings with relaxed contentment at waking up to the sound of other musicians practicing all around her. Meanwhile “Roses Blue” adopts a cramped, almost claustrophobic guitar pattern, a knotted folk blues that perfectly synchronizes to the way Mitchell rushes her vocal delivery as she describes a mysterious woman with witchy powers of prophecy. Sometimes, Mitchell even sets her arrangements against herself, as on “The Gallery,” which uses pastoral guitar to surreptitiously slip in a seemingly romantic tale that gradually reveals itself as a description of a possessive romance, of Mitchell being placed on a pedestal in the gallery of a man’s life and being “left to winter here/ While you went west for pleasure.”
At its best, Clouds showcases Mitchell’s rapidly developing ability to not merely match her instrumentation with her lyrics but to use both in tandem to push her sound into new areas. “Roses Blue,” for example, compounds its eerie energy by having the last line of a stanza recycle into the first line of the next, a paranoid repetition matched by the guitar pattern stuttering over itself to trap the song in a sense of purgatorial imprisonment. The album’s most ambitious track, “Song to Aging Children Come,” is a downright marvel. Double-tracking her voice, Mitchell crafts harmonics with herself, letting each vocal take slide in and out of sync to create a blurring effect bridged by the guitar, which splits difference melodically in these moments of divergence. In this song one can hear not so much the work of Mitchell’s peers but in many ways the seeds for future members of the avant-folk brigade such as Richard Dawson and Joanna Newsom. This is art-pop, challenging but inviting, using only a few elements but making something powerful and still strange.
Though most of the album’s pleasures lie in the way Mitchell grows, the final two tracks show off just how ready she was for stardom. “The Fiddle and the Drum” is the sole political statement on Clouds, an a cappella Vietnam protest song. Yet Mitchell ducks some of the polemics and dated stridency of her peers, instead opting for a mournful lament from the perspective of an outsider regarding a country’s turn to war with a mixture of curiosity, incomprehension, and pity. The final track, “Both Sides, Now,” is Mitchell’s first masterpiece, a series of word-images that lay out a vision of the world that manages to be both fantastical and realistic, neither naïve nor cynical. Over the course of four and a half minutes, Mitchell describes an entire emotional journey to balance the romantic with the clear-headed, only to Socratically conclude with this sober breakthrough of perspective that she sees now that she knows and understands nothing. It is a work of maturity and humility that points to the absolute best that Mitchell has to offer, and a thrilling portend of her discography to come.