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Joni Mitchell: best of the B-sides

Andrea Warner

There’s a clarity to Joni Mitchell’s voice, vibrant and wise and stark. Distinct and unforgettable, it is a changeling, shifting sharply or subtlety, from disquietingly precise to bracing and vivid; a stately bird with sleek, monotone feathers that fans its plumage to reveal a wild, hidden underworld of colour and possibility.

That voice, its inherent mutation and ability to surprise, to catch listeners unaware, is evident in the way Mitchell writes, too. Her peers are a handful of icons — Buffy Sainte-Marie, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen — all of whom are fellow Canadians and artists, people who pursued (and had the privilege to pursue) knowledge and creativity and love above all else, whose songs are dense with observations, hard truths, tiny miracles.

It’s also very easy to fixate on Mitchell’s hits, of which there have been many since her debut single, 1968’s “Night in the City” from her first album, Song to a Seagull. But for every single, there’s a B-side and it’s time to dig through and parse the best from the rest. Below we rank Mitchell's best B-sides, including a number of songs that we still can’t believe the labels relegated to the backs of 45s.

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1. ‘A Case of You,’ 1971 (A-side: ‘California’)

Who could listen to this song and decide it was a B-side? No matter. Music fans corrected this error by almost instantly recognizing its superiority, making it one of Mitchell’s most revered hits.  Every line is perfect: “I could drink a case of you, darlin’/ and I would still be on my feet/ Oh, I’d still be on my feet.” Mitchell’s ability to pack complex, layered meanings inside the most simple phrases is masterful. The straightforward arrangement — hearing every creak of the guitar (James Taylor), every steely twang of Mitchell’s Appalachian dulcimer — is both tree and branch for the leaves and flowers that spill out as she sings, “Just before our love got lost you said/ ‘I am as constant as a northern star’/ And I said ‘Constantly in the darkness/ Where's that at?/ If you want me I'll be in the bar.’"  

2. ‘Both Sides Now,’ 1969 (A-side: ‘Chelsea Morning’)

“And if you care/ don’t let them know/ don’t give yourself away.” There’s something so resolute and lonely, yet still tender, about this remarkable carousel of a song. Mitchell’s voice moves from dreamy and young to wise and wistful, and the song’s imagery parallels those shifts, contemplating clouds and ferris wheels and ice cream castles while also acknowledging the ways in which life and love devastate and humble us daily.

3. ‘Court and Spark,’ 1973 (A-side: ‘Raised on Robbery’)

So many of Mitchell’s songs are about love, but rarely are they written solely from a position of yearning. Her approach is much more nuanced and sophisticated, and this song in particular draws its characters so specifically you can practically taste California in its post-hippy prime. “Love came to my door/ with a sleeping roll/ and a madman's soul,” Mitchell sings, wry and detached but still with so much heart. “I sacrificed my blues/ and you could complete me/ I'd complete you,” is a promise nobody can keep, not because of bad intentions but because of life. Mitchell writes as a realist who still has hope, a beguiling combination in songwriting.

4. ‘Woodstock,’ 1970 (A-side: ‘Big Yellow Taxi’)

This love letter to the Folk Festival That Changed the World doubles, also, as a salute to ’60s ideals and attitudes.

“I'm going to join in a rock 'n' roll band,
I'm going to camp out on the land,
I'm going to try an' get my soul free.

We are stardust,
We are golden,
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.”  

It’s a song that’s often associated with innocence, and there are certainly aspects of that, but there’s an edge to to Mitchell’s voice — when it breaks at “smog,” soaring into the rafters and then dipping into her lowest register, the final minute or so of just vocal acrobatics and momentary guttural gasps — that reveals a weariness, conveying the horrors of the time as well.

5. ‘Blonde in the Bleachers,’ 1972 (A-side: ‘Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire’)

It’s a pretty common story and Mitchell delivers it without indictment. In fact, she has a lot of compassion for her subjects — and maybe it’s for herself, too: is she both the blonde and the rock ’n’ roll man? The latter or the former? Neither? — and the relationship between sex and music, sex and celebrity, non-monogamy and the road. The sudden shift in perspectives in the final third of the song is fascinating though.

“She tapes her regrets
To the microphone stand,
She says ‘You can't hold the hand
Of a rock 'n' roll man
Very long,
Or count on your plans
With a rock 'n' roll man
Very long,
Compete with the fans
For your rock 'n' roll man
For very long,
The girls and the bands
And the rock 'n' roll man.’”

6. ‘The Three Great Stimulants,’ 1985 (A-side: ‘Shiny Toys’)

Maybe it seems too obvious, too preachy, but there are so many ideas competing for space inside this unusual ’80s gem. It was an indictment of privilege 30 years ahead of its time, but it was a warning, an early wake-up call that should have been heeded. The spacious arrangement feels a bit clunky, too, like a smorgasboard of period affectations rather than anything cohesive, and yet there’s something reminiscent about Mitchell’s earlier work in this setup. The music supports the words rather than obscuring them, which is particularly useful in moments like this.

“No tanks have ever rumbled through these streets,
And the drone of planes at night has never frightened me.
I keep the hours and the company that I please
And we call for the three great stimulants
Of the exhausted ones,
Artifice brutality and innocence,
Artifice and innocence.”

7. ‘Just Like This Train,’ 1974 (A-side: ‘Help Me’)

This elegant “screw you” song from the perspective of a jealous, maybe jilted lover, contains one of my favourite petty-but-brilliant burns ever: “Dreaming of the pleasure I’m going to have/ watching your hairline recede/ my vain darling.” The rest of the song is just as wry and darkly funny, but even those moments are measured by Mitchell’s propensity for self-effacement. “I used to count lovers like railroad cars,” she sings, “I counted them on my side/ Lately I don't count on nothing/ I just let things slide.”

8. ‘This Flight Tonight,’ 1971 (A-side: ‘Carey’)

Even when we know we shouldn’t, we do. Sometimes it just feels good. Sometimes we can’t help ourselves. Sometimes we’re just self-destructive. Mitchell knows, she knows our worst decisions. This song is almost a bit cheesy, but it also packs a hell of a story — and a song-within-a-song — in under three minutes. Plus it’s a song sung by a woman (in 1971) who makes no apologies for her sexuality, for asserting what she wants and what she needs, even when she’s plagued by second thoughts: “Oh starlight, star bright/ you've got the lovin' that I like all right/ Turn this crazy bird around/ I shouldn't have got on this flight tonight.” 

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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