For the Roses—provided one can get past its thorny exterior—is likely to stay with the listener for a long time.
Falling as it does between Joni Mitchell’s most critically acclaimed album (1971’s Blue) and her biggest commercial success (1974’s Court and Spark), 1972’s For the Roses can be easy to overlook. It is, in fact, a textbook transitional album: a snapshot of Mitchell at the crossroads between Blue’s confessional folk-pop and the jazz-fusion undertones of her mid-‘70s work. Like many such albums, however, For the Roses has much to offer for listeners willing to meet it on its terms.
At least on first listen, this may be easier said than done. Mitchell’s melodies always have a tendency to meander, but here they’re positively baroque: as sprawling and elaborate as the allegorical feast described in opening track “Banquet.” The lyrics are dense and polysyllabic, frequently threatening to overspill the constraints of their verses. At times, this combination approaches preciousness: never more than on “Barangrill,” which weaves a series of encounters at a truck stop diner into a quest for a fancifully-named realm that seems to be an overwrought metaphor for the simple lives of common folk.
It isn’t until halfway through the first vinyl side, with the pseudo-medley of “Lesson in Survival” and “Let the Wind Carry Me,” that Mitchell slows down long enough for anything approaching an easy hook. Not coincidentally, these tracks—along with second side opener “See You Sometime”—are the ones that most strongly recall Blue in both arrangement and lyrical content. All three are dominated by Mitchell’s voice and acoustic piano: the final notes of “Lesson in Survival” haven’t even faded away before “Let the Wind Carry Me” begins. All three also dispense of the florid symbolism of songs like “Banquet” and “Barangrill” in favor of a more down-to-earth emotional intimacy. The hardest-hitting lines of “Lesson” in particular are among the most plainspoken: “I get so damn timid/Not at all the spirit/That’s inside of me,” Mitchell laments to a soon-to-be-former lover, her voice darting up to the top of her range as she confesses, “Oh baby I can’t seem to make it/With you socially.”
Yet even these more familiar moments for fans of her previous album still bear the marks of increased complexity: namely the chamber-jazz touches provided by woodwind player Tom Scott, whose fusion group L.A. Express would form the core of Mitchell’s band on Court and Spark, 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns and the 1974 live album Miles of Aisles. Scott’s reeds enliven the brooding “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire,” providing a plaintive counterpoint to the serpentine patterns of Mitchell’s voice and guitar; his descending run after she sings “down, down, down the dark ladder” sounds for all the world like the gurgling of an analogue synthesizer. While both he and Mitchell would grow more musically adventurous on Court and (especially) Summer Lawns, many of For the Roses’ best moments come directly from the two musicians’ unique alchemy. On both “Let the Wind Carry Me” and closing track “Judgement of the Moon and Stars (Ludwig’s Tune),” Mitchell’s wordless backing vocals uncannily mimic the muted sound of Scott’s horn: a particularly direct use of her voice’s expressive capacity, which has grown by leaps and bounds since her more tentative early albums.
Indeed, For the Roses feels in many ways like the album on which Mitchell finally begins to reach her full potential as a singer. It’s her layered backing vocals that distinguish the mellow, pastoral “Electricity,” as well as the deliberately trite “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio”—the album’s only charting single, infamously written after a petulant Mitchell decided to take her record label’s request for a “radio-friendly” song at face value. Elsewhere, she exploits the vulnerability of her upper range for heightened emotional impact: her quavering delivery of the line “Why do you have to be so jive” on “See You Sometime” sounds like Kate Bush five years ahead of The Kick Inside.
But it’s Mitchell’s songwriting that remains her crowning achievement, and the side-two centerpiece “Blonde in the Bleachers” is For the Roses’ songwriting tour de force. Unfurling in three discrete movements in less than three minutes, it is perhaps the album’s most overt reference to Mitchell’s recently-ended relationship with singer-songwriter James Taylor: the lines about not being able to “hold the hand of a rock’n’roll man/Very long” clearly cut close to home. Yet it’s also—and unsurprisingly—a more incisive dissection of the dynamics between rock’n’roll men and their ladies than any of the countless songs on the subject by her male peers. This ability to cut to the melancholy core of human relationships remains virtually unparalleled among popular songwriters. It’s the reason why For the Roses—provided one can get past its thorny exterior—is likely to stay with the listener for a long time.