I suppose you might say my love of Joni Mitchell began in the womb, as a 70’s baby born to parents who both loved her music. But my actual love of Joni’s music began when I was a teenager, listening to my parents’ record albums on the stereo in the basement. Her strange melodies, haunting voice, and descriptive lyrics enlightened me in ways more modern music could not. With a body of work that spans decades, her brilliant wordplay has touched upon every aspect of the human condition. As I have grown older and wiser, I am better able to appreciate Joni’s music; age and experience reveal layer upon layer of meaning in her vast collection of songs.
Today I am 30-something and experiencing the implosion of a 5-year relationship, and I find myself turning once again to Joni for the comfort of being understood and the perspective of a woman who has been through this and more. Poetically introspective, her diverse collection of songs is a healing salve for the post-breakup soul. She so perfectly articulates every nuanced detail of relationship, from the wild, seemingly-endless thrill of love, to the heartbreaking loneliness of loss, to the relief of avoiding partnership too confining for the spirit of a woman who craves, at her core, total freedom. Here is a short list of songs that have been getting me through the worst of breakup moments.
1. Cactus Tree (Song to a Seagull, 1968): A folksy story-song about a string of affairs between a list of men and a woman who loves them but wants to remain unfettered by relationship. Despite their best efforts to contain her, “Her heart is full and hollow, like a cactus tree. She’s so busy being free.”
2. Dawntreader (Song to a Seagull, 1968): A beautiful, haunting melody packed with hippy seaside imagery, mermaids, dolphins, buried treasure. “I believe him when he tells of loving me,” despite his “staking all his silver on a promise to be free.” She gives up her life in the city to be with him, and ends up having no one to share her dreams with except a seabird. Despite her dreams of children and happiness, the melancholy music tells the real story of a relationship that was doomed from the start.
3. Down to You (Court and Spark, 1974): The song begins with, “Everything comes and goes,” and the story unfolds, revealing a lonely person who is disillusioned by her failed attempts at finding love in shallow relationships and one-night-stands. The search for self-knowledge is ongoing, and though she grasps her own complexity and sees herself as one who “can crawl and can fly too,” she struggles to find lasting happiness in love.
4. The Last Time I Saw Richard (Blue, 1971): Last time she saw Richard, he was bitterly jaded about love, and complained to her over drinks in the cafe. She convinces him that he still has the capacity to love, and he ends up going off to find conventional happiness and marriage, leaving her in the dark cafe, waiting to “get her gorgeous wings and fly away.” Beautifully melodic misery loves company, but then is left alone to work on its own release.
5. A Case of You (Blue, 1971): Some partnerships are so close, the other person becomes a part of you. When the relationship ends, it’s impossible to tell at first, what is you and what is them. This is about love that is felt at the very level of the soul. “You’re in my blood like holy wine… I could drink a case of you and still be on my feet.”
6. Urge for Going (Hits, 1996): Another haunting melody in minor key, with heavy nature imagery as metaphor for the end of a relationship. As the summertime gives way to fall and winter, transient love must follow its natural course. A song that honors the strength of the bond, while also grieving its loss. “He got the urge for going, and I had to let him go.” What else is there to do? Every summer must end, and though the “geese in chevron flight… have got the wings, so they can go,” there is no way to escape the winter’s chill – other than blankets, bonfires, and the memory of summer’s warmth.
7. Amelia (Hejira, 1976): A conversation with Amelia Earhart, solo pilot to solo pilot. You can hear the disappointment and self-searching in Joni’s tone and her words. “Maybe I’ve never really loved, I guess that is the truth.” Who hasn’t left a relationship questioning her capacity to love? “Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms.”
8. Hejira (Hejira, 1976): Probably the one that most hits home for me. “In our possessive coupling, so much could not be expressed, so now I am returning to myself these things that you and I suppressed.” The empowering sense of being on a self-directed path, paired with the confusion of being constantly derailed by longing for connection, and an eye to the future. As in so many of her songs, Joni articulates the tension between the desire for freedom and the need for love.
9. I Think I Understand (Clouds, 1969): A painting in words and melody, a walk in the dark woods and an exploration of fear. An “aha” moment of a song: “Fear is like a wilderland, stepping stones or sinking sand.” Learning to fight fear with the light of better times, and also a healthy respect for fear that does not go away. Though not explicitly about a broken relationship, there is a solitary feeling to the song that reflects the scary alone-ness that comes after a loss.
10. Judgement of the Moon and Stars (For the Roses, 1972): Actually a pep-talk to Beethoven written after Joni read a book about him, this is a great post-breakup song. In the raw aftermath of the breakup, learning to go on alone and find a life worth living isn’t easy. With practical advice like, “Draw yourself a bath, think what you’d like to have for supper,” and also the kind of dramatic helplessness that strikes in the shadow of failed love, “It’s the judgement of the moon and stars, your solitary path,” this is ultimately a song encouraging empowerment, authenticity, and fulfillment through the creative arts.
There are so many great songs about love that didn’t work out (See you Sometime, Strange Boy, Lessons in Survival, Wild Things Run Fast, and many others) it was a challenge to keep the list to ten.
In the end, only the passage of time can truly heal the pain of a breakup. But, with beautiful music and insightful words from Joni, time passes a little more quickly and a bit more sweetly, too.
Thank you, Joni, for sharing your amazing gifts with the world. Your presence on this Earth is truly a blessing.