listening to joni: #2: clouds

Clouds, 1969

Clouds, front cover
Listening to Clouds was a strange experience for me: I didn't know the album! I know every note of every album Joni has recorded since then, but this one was foreign.

Of course I know the famous songs from this album -- "Chelsea Morning," "That Song About the Midway," and "Both Sides, Now" -- but I had no memory at all of the other songs. The one exception was the a cappella "The Fiddle and the Drum," about the US's war-making -- but that's because not long ago, we saw Joni perform it on an episode of the old Dick Cavett Show, filmed right after Woodstock had taken place. But the actual album? It felt like I was hearing it for the first time.

This must mean that my sister and I didn't play Clouds. Maybe we didn't own it and filled it in later, when Joni's music had gone way past this stage. I really don't know. I'll see if my sister has any idea.

Even more surprising, I had a mixed reaction this album. 

On Clouds, we hear the true beauty of Joni's voice. Her voice sounds so much richer and fuller than it does on Song to a Seagull. This must be a consequence of production. According to biographer David Yaffe, David Crosby's production of Song was a bit bizarre. Although Clouds was only her second album, Joni already was through with producers, and would fight throughout her career to produce her music herself, working only with a sound engineer. On Clouds, her voice is beautiful -- still those crazy high notes, but also a whole range of full, supple sound.

Clouds, full cover, opened
When this album was released, Judy Collins had already covered "Chelsea Morning" and "Both Sides, Now" on her album Wildflowers. I'm not a Judy Collins fan, and if I had heard only her version, I would think the songs were banal. But both songs come alive on Clouds. Incidentally, if the media was still looking for Joni The Folksinger, "Both Sides, Now" would tick that box.

"That Song About the Midway," I know chiefly from Bonnie Raitt's excellent cover, and I prefer Raitt's bluesy swagger and full production to this girl-with-guitar version. Joni supposedly wrote "Midway" about Leonard Cohen, something I wouldn't have known at the time -- considering I wouldn't know who Leonard Cohen was for at least another 20 years. (The biography is full of revelations of what songs are "about" or who inspired them. It's only 1969 and it's already bothering me.)

The most significant development on this album is the beginning of Joni's talent as a poet. The lyrics are beginning to display her prowess for offering unexpected descriptions and metaphors. "...You stood out like a ruby in a black man's ear..." Many people mistake this line for a description of the man she is singing about wearing a jewel in his ear. But no, it's a picture for the listener.

Other than "Chelsea Morning," "Both Sides, Now," and "Midway" -- three great songs -- the rest of the songs are maudlin, and the album overall feels morose. Not somber. Lots of good music is somber. But -- speaking of Leonard Cohen -- morose is wallowing in somber. Morose is one-dimensional. Yaffe says that many of these songs were written years earlier, then gathered on this album, and represent different scraps of thought and styles that Joni was trying on and discarding. While the lyrics are simply too good to call them filler or throwaway tracks, the songs do feel like aberrations -- some alternative not-Joni.

The best example of this is "I Don't Know Where I Stand," which sounds like something from the crooner era, a la "Send in the Clowns", the kind of music Joni frequently mentions as her earliest exposure. The song has been covered by more than 30 artists, including Barbra Streisand and Fairport Convention. It's not a bad song, but the lyrics, structure, and arrangement seem old-fashioned. It feels completely out-of-sync with any of Joni's music.

So in the end, I don't have much of a personal connection to this album. Joni's voice is beautiful and the songs are beautiful, but girl-with-acoustic-guitar feels thin.

Bad critic comment of the album

In the Reckless Daughter anthology, about "Both Sides, Now," some music writers wonder how then- 24-year-old (when she wrote it) Joni had looked at life or love from "both sides, now", the implication being she was too young to have known much of life at all. So let's see. By 24, Joni had: survived polio, living alone in a hospital without her parents for months, re-learned how to walk with only minimal rehabilitation, left her conservative prairie town, arrived in Toronto with a few dollars in her pocket, found a way to support herself, became pregnant, gave birth and tried to support herself and her daughter, surrendered her daughter for adoption, got married, traveled and performed with her husband, left her husband, lived in New York City, and traveled and performed thousands of miles for months at a time on her own.

Did anyone ever question if 24-year-old Mick Jagger really had a woman under his thumb? Mick and Joni are the same age. Sexist crap.

The album cover

Joni's cover art -- a self-portrait over a sunset-coloured sky -- doesn't match the album's mood. But the artist portrays herself as somber and composed. That would come to be a theme.

Other musicians on this album

None. This is just Joni and guitar.

Allan suggests that I link to videos and reviews from the relevant period, but for me that would feel like a chore, and unnecessary. JoniMitchell.com contains every album, every song, album notes, and reviews. This, for example, is the Clouds  page. 

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