Thanks, Hendrik! Good afternoon from Minnesota, everyone! I’d re-introduce myself, but the only thing you really need to know about me right now is that I’m from the U.S., as this will inform my understanding of the great Swedish musician Frida Hyvönen and the nature of her renown.
The reason for this is quite ordinary: Hyvönen has been without an American label since 2008, when Secretly Canadian released her second album Silence Is Wild stateside to positive reviews. It wasn’t enough. Introducing an international artist to the U.S. is a one-time deal, I’d thought, but without press or publicity or even Allmusic to lead listeners to 2012 follow-up To The Soul, no one here ever knew it existed, despite its budget availability as an Amazon digital album. So, a record that debuted at #4 on the Swedish charts didn’t get a single American review, beyond the one I posted in my little corner of the Internet. Oh well, it happens all the time, but I’d thought we were committed to making Hyvönen happen here.
Not too many years ago, her U.S. presence went without saying. In 2006, when Secretly Canadian released her debut Until Death Comes, I was already thrilled by a seemingly endless influx of Swedish music that showed an increasingly sophisticated, progressive and romantic attitude toward long-suffering pop tropes, youth music, etc. It made for effortless college radio programming, free from stylistic restraint. Class of 2005-06: El Perro Del Mar, The Tough Alliance, Jens Lekman, Jose Gonzalez, Love Is All, The Knife, Sally Shapiro, Peter Bjorn & John. Conversational piano pounder Hyvönen was an immediately welcome addition. Of course ABBA had contained this degree of creative energy wholly within themselves, and Nuggets II offered a glimpse of what predated them, and there’d been other Swedish pop groups (as phenomenal as ABBA, as obscure as The Tages) to get attention here in the intervening decades, but the sudden range, and our sudden interest, seemed unprecedented.
But it was arbitrary, just a lot of good music happening at the same time. There was no vanguard to protect, so Hyvönen slipped away from us, while continuing to make her best work and becoming ever more popular in Sweden.
So I’m thrilled to reflect on her music this week, and, toward the end of it, to formally “introduce” her masterpiece, To The Soul (Swedish readers can play along). The rest of her discography should perfectly fit the days until then: her first two proper albums, two other short albums made to accompany a dance performance and a photo exhibition, respectively, and a handful of cover songs and collaborations.
But first, a whim.
Feedback on these posts? Yes, please! Positive, negative, I don’t get enough of it. @stuevgrooves // email@example.com
Thank you, Helen! (And also, a very happy birthday to you!)
Coming up straight ahead, this week we’ll talk about Swedish singer-songwriter Frida Hyvönen.
Guest writer for the week is Geoffrey Stueven, who writes about music for The Big Takeover, and also has his own blog, tumblr, and Twitter account.
See you in a moment,
"Come in from the Cold," Joni Mitchell
This is the best song of the second half of Joni Mitchell’s career, bar none, but also the most shocking if you’re careening from the highs of, say, “The Arrangement,” and hear the change in her voice by the time Night Ride Home was released in 1991. She started smoking young, smoked heavily throughout her life, and dealt with health problems as she aged, and here’s the end result.
That’s not to say, of course, that her voice isn’t beautiful in this: it is. Night Ride Home is the first time anyone would ever describe Joni Mitchell’s voice as “smoky,” but that works for lines like “Is this just vulgar electricity/Is this the edifying fire?” or “I feel renewed/I feel disabled/By these bonfires in my spine.” It almost feels like a refined version of “Electricity,” with that particular metaphor showing up throughout the song, but that would be an oversimplification of the song.
Joni Mitchell is still so freaking independent, though; she’s still staking a claim to her own place in the music scene and her own place in her personal life and her own life in the narrative that’s become The Story of Joni Mitchell, with the lines
I am not some stone commission
Like a statue in a park
I am flesh and blood and vision
I am howling in the dark
The other great song off Night Ride Home is “Night Ride Home,” perfect for this time of year, incidentally (also, look at that music video!).
"Come in from the Cold" is firmly in the Experimental side of the Joni Mitchell discography, but it pulls in all the best stuff from her early work, never leaning too far into the self-indulgence of some of the other songs from the Geffen records.
"Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody," Joni Mitchell
I hated this song when I first listened to Hits as a very little girl (I also hated “Woodstock”), a hatred which probably sprang from my utter inability to understand what she was talking about. How do you explain the lines “Now your kids are coming up straight/And my child’s a stranger/I bore her/But I could not raise her” to a little kid?
This song is, along with “Both Sides Now,” “The Circle Game,” and “Come in from the Cold,” Joni Mitchell’s great look back at again (or look forward, in the case of the first two), which succeeds because it makes an utterly mundane and universal topic feel urgent, personal, and intimate, a testament to how great a songwriter Joni Mitchell always has been.
This song, like “This Flight Tonight,” from Blue, incorporates strains of a pop hit to make a point, I think, one that’s made well, and here even more so to lay a scene: the place they’d hang out in the 1950s.
"Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter," Joni Mitchell
Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Joni Mitchell’s 1977 release, is the first of her decidedly experimental albums, featuring “Paprika Plains,” clocking in at over 16 minutes and with a full orchestral arrangement. The cover features, yes, Joni Mitchell herself in blackface as her alter-ego, which I cannot imagine was any less racist in the late 1970s as it seems now.
"Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter," the song, is, I’ll allow, probably my favorite off this album because it’s the closest in style to Hejira and thus to the beginning of Joni Mitchell’s career — an extended metaphor comparing the “snakes along the railroad tracks” and “eagles in jet trails.” The eagles is mankind’s natural idealism; the serpent, its conniving nature (which is not the most creative metaphor).
This song’s redeeming nature is in its incredibly catchy beat and the flow of lyrics (in true “Subterranean Homesick Blues” fashion, you find yourself always just behind Joni when trying to sing along), and in the brilliant turns of phrase littered throughout (“last night the ghost of my old ideas reran on Channel Five”).
"Amelia," Joni Mitchell
I’m going to close the first half of Joni Mitchell’s career with her most lyrically perfect song, which serves quite well as a place-marker. Tomorrow we’ll talk about her final albums, but they’re not what I’ve been interested in focusing on this week. “Amelia” is the highlight of Joni Mitchell’s career in almost every way.
We’ll discuss lyrics first. The opening verse:
I was driving across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
it was the strings of my guitar
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
"Hexagram of the heavens," what a turn of phrase. The repeated "Amelia, it was just a false alarm," with the double meaning that phrase holds (a false alarm can be a good or bad thing, situation depending). This song embodies the Western United States Road Trip aesthetic of Hejira, of traveling lonely across the barren desert.
The other fascinating thing about this song is how clearly retrospective it was when written. She talks about “like me, she had a dream to fly,” how she spent her whole life in “clouds at icy altitudes,” and she pulls in at the “Cactus Tree Motel to shower off the dust.” Joni’s leaving her earlier self behind, but it’s a conscious choice: you don’t write a song like this and evolve the way she did without having done the former precipitating the latter.
I’m going to link again to that Slate article, which says most of what needs saying about this song, particularly about how beautiful her voice sounds singing “beautiful foolish arms,” and says it very well.
From this album I’d also recommend listening to “Hejira" and "Refuge of the Roads" (both less accessible than "Coyote" and "Amelia"), but I’d recommend very much listening to the album as a whole, for the feeling of the open sky.
Joni Mitchell’s description of the writing of this song was: "I was thinking of Amelia Earhart and addressing it from one solo pilot to another… sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do." There’s a farewell in this, and the best lyrics she’s ever written.
"Coyote," Joni Mitchell
I’m going to skip over The Hissing of Summer Lawns (to get an idea of that album, listen to “Edith and the Kingpin" and "In France They Kiss on Main Street”) because there’s really not a song on that album which I love as deeply and intensely as I love several songs on Hejira, which was written as a road trip retrospective. It’s so atmospheric, still rooted in folk rock but with definite claims to jazz, but not the Muzaky stylings of Court and Spark — you can hear the road on this album.
"Coyote" is in my top five Joni Mitchell songs (although I’m having a crisis about that list as I type this), because it’s the single sexiest song she’s ever written:
There’s no comprehending
Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes
And the lips you can get
And still feel so alone
And still feel related
Like stations in some relay
"Coyote" is the most up-tempo song on the album and gets even more rocking when Joni’s backed by those other Canadian greats, the Band, in The Last Waltz (she’s using an acoustic in that video, but by the time she’s playing with Jaco Pastorius on bass, she’s switched over to the electric), which is one of the best performances ever.
This song may be about Sam Shephard, or it may not, I frankly don’t care. What I do care about is the lines “too far from the Bay of Fundy/from apaloosas and eagles and tides,” because, god, what an atmosphere captured in a few words. What a song.