With Ladies of the Canyon, Mitchell transcended the folk idiom that had defined her first two records and put together a more “painterly” set of songs, broader in musical range, approach and mood.
Though she had not yet made arguably her most iconic album, Blue, Joni Mitchell was, by 1970, a success. With her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, she transcended the folk idiom that had defined her first two records and put together a grand and more “painterly” set of songs, broader in musical range, approach and mood.
It is, in some ways, a divisive album, insofar as some of its more playful songs – “Morning Morgantown,” “The Circle Game” and, above all, “Big Yellow Taxi” – are ones her detractors will point to as evidence of the sometimes trite or unserious nature of her songwriting (of course, other material of hers has been criticized for being “too” serious, so damned if you do, damned if you don’t). But even a song like “Big Yellow Taxi” (which, yes, suffers from overexposure) sounds different in the context of the album’s sequencing, alongside much darker and romantic songs that are some of the best she’s written.
Ladies of the Canyon is also the album in which one can notice how versatile her ear for arrangements is. Though they’d already begun to vary on Clouds, certainly, her use of close, multitracked harmonies here is evidence of her beginning to play with the studio in a way she would go on to do to greater and greater effect in albums to come. Mitchell’s voice and playing – on either piano or guitar – still takecenter stage here, but are supplemented here by clarinet, flute and sax, as well as percussion and a full choir on the last song “The Circle Game,” with its memorable refrain.
Most compelling on the album, which is loosely a paean to Laurel Canyon, are its songs about relationships, namely “Conversation,” “Willy,” “The Arrangement,” “Rainy Night House” and “Blue Boy.” It is interesting to note the difference in register between these songs. There is the loose, casual feel of “Conversation,” mirroring its titular topic, with an enviable concision and wit that would clearly prove influential (one thinks of Morrissey, one of Mitchell’s great admirers) as she sings, “Secrets and sharing soda/ That’s how our time began/ Love is a story told to a friend/ It’s second hand.” And one also finds her characteristically brilliant, effortless in turns of phrase like “She speaks in sorry sentences/ Miraculous repentances.” There is the slower, mournful “Willy,” written about Graham Nash, which has a more fabular quality: “I feel like I’m just being born/ Like a shiny light breaking in a storm.” Things grows even sparser with the inching, piano-driven “The Arrangement,” a tale only half-glimpsed through fleeting details, but with a vocal performance so compelling it feels as personal as any other of the songs, her voice stretching to its upper limits. The more baroque “Blue Boy,” which seems to inhabit a quasi-mystical realm, sketches the lines of a personal mythology as Mitchell sings, “Like a pilgrim she traveled/ To place her flowers/ Before his granite grace.”
“For Free” is perhaps the best and most enduring song on the album. Its stellar chord progression supports a set of lyrics that showcase Mitchell’s gifts as a pure observer, her ability to give nothing away, to hold everything back, while opening up a whole cosmos for her listeners. Her voice, buzzing like a harmonium, sings from the perspective of fame, capturing the transfixing sight and sound of a street musician: “And I play if you have the money/ Or if you’re a friend to me/ But the one-man band/ By the quick lunch stand/ He was playing real good for free.” A touching moment of recognition from a songwriter who, even this early in her career, learned to leave her art untouched by success.