The Spectator

The Best Joni Mitchell Song Ever

An ode to obsessive listening.

Joni Mitchell

This is a love letter. To a love song. One I keep returning to. One I keep feeling I need to do justice to. I don’t know if I can, but I’ll try.

A couple of months ago, I’d gone back to playing it. Only I can’t play it just once. I have to play it over and over again for hours on end. I can’t get enough of it. It’s not just a love song: It’s a road song, it’s a motel song, it’s a Southwestern desert song, it’s a disappearance and death song. It’s a Joni Mitchell song. It’s “Amelia.”

People get that way about Joni Mitchell songs. Bob Dylan once told me that he’d written “Tangled up in Blue,” the opening song of the much-celebrated Blood on the Tracks, after spending a weekend immersed in JM’s Blue (although I think he may have been talking about the whole album, not just the song).

I’m subject to similar bouts of musical addiction, periods when I get tangled up in a song like “Amelia” and play it over and over again for hours, sometimes days at a time.

It’s not just Joni Mitchell, not just a certain type of female singer-songwriter I have an obsession with. (Although I do revere Rickie Lee Jones and Rosanne Cash.) It’s a certain kind of song, one that seems to activate some sort of hard-wired emotional cell cluster in my brain, I’m (unscientifically) convinced. Songs that do for me what crack does for other people.

Recent songs I’ve been binge-listening to: Smokey Robinson’s “The Love I Saw in You Was Just a Mirage”; Willie Nelson’s version of Rodney Crowell’s “Till I Gain Control Again”; Roger McGuinn’s version of Dylan’s “Up to Me”; and Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love.” (Do Slate readers go on these marathon, days-long, single-song benders? If so, please post about your latest in the Fray.)

Why “Amelia” now? Well, I had been on the road a bit more than usual this year because I had a fellowship at the University of Chicago. But all that flying could just as easily have put me on an Emmylou Harris “Boulder to Birmingham” jet-lag jag. I think it must have been the release of the new JM album Shine, which I liked but didn’t love. That and the discovery that the 33 1/3 series had come out with a Joni Mitchell booklet.

Do you know the 33 1/3 series? Everyone I know who cares about music in a smart way is talking about it. Small, short, pocket-sized monographs (from Continuum), each devoted to a single album. In an age of digital downloads of single tracks that has resulted in the atomization of the album, it’s almost a landmarks preservation project. But what landmarks! Some that always need rediscovery(Dusty in Memphis, Kick Out the Jams); some so renowned they need to be reknown: Highway 61 Revisited is revisited, as is that other great thoroughfare album, Exile on Main Street.

I like the idea of the project, although I’ve always thought that focusing on the album as the aesthetic unit can distract from closer focus on individual songs. Not all albums have the intentionality, the unity, the “concept” attributed to them by critics, and deep-think about albums can become a distorting lens that diminishes the attentiveness certain songs deserve. This approach leads to the neglect of some tracks that leave their respective albums in the dust, the part sometimes being greater than the whole. (Not all Shakespeare’s sonnets are equal or inseparable from the sequence, if you ask me.)

Especially since some album cuts are included (and sequenced) for technical or commercial reasons that may be irrelevant to the “concept” at hand. (“Up to Me” was left off the final version of Blood on the Tracks; both song and album might have been conceptually different if it had not been orphaned, but in a way I’m glad it was).

And sometimes a single song just so far surpasses the album you find it on that you wish there were a booklet devoted to it alone. (I’d call the series “One-Track Mind.”) I wish there were a booklet devoted to “Amelia.” There is a novel that precedes the song by several years, one that shares some of the same landscape, physical and emotional: Joan Didion’s classic of post-romantic desert anomie, Play It As It Lays. The song could serve as the soundtrack for the novel, or the novel as recommended reading post-“Amelia.” (Indeed, what about a series of essays that pairs great novels with a playlist of kindred songs?)

The Joni Mitchell monograph that 33 1/3 came out with this year is extremely well-written (by Seattle musician Sean Nelson), and it displays all the virtues of smart music writing by people who actually know and play music. But—if you ask me—it’s about the wrong album. It’s about Court and Spark.

Now, some of you might want to leave the room for a moment, because I’m going to say something a little heretical, if not intentionally mean. To my mind, Court and Spark isn’t Joni Mitchell music so much as Joni Mitchell Muzak. Joni Mitchell doing aural wallpaper patterns, generic Joni Mitchell. On a high plane, sure, but to me, too coolly intellectual, emotionally distant.

I don’t necessarily think all of Hejira, the album on which “Amelia” appears, is on a high plane. (It does have perhaps her sexiest song in the lowdown “Coyote.”) But you couldn’t get on a higher plane than her song evoking that brave and lost aviator Amelia Earhart.

“Amelia” is the hejira within Hejira, the metaphoric flight. (The original meaning of the term, of course, is the flight of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina.) In this case the singer, whoever she is (I don’t like straight autobiographical translations of songs, even ones that sound “personal”) is “driving across the burning desert” in the aftermath of a crash-and-burn romance in which she’s “asked to kindly stay away.” (What an idiot, whoever he was.) As she drives, she’s thinking of Amelia Earhart, the “ghost of aviation,” who is presumed to have crashed in some Pacific paradise still unknown.

And she’s thinking of herself, in terms of that lonely, brave, romantic flier, in terms of “Icarus ascending/ on beautiful foolish arms.” (You’ve got to hear her ravishing vocalization of that phrase “beautiful foolish arms”!) Someone who long looked down at love from “icy altitudes” who then “crashed into [the] arms” of someone who left her lost and stranded. Unlike Amelia, she still has “the refuge of the roads” (the title of the last and second-most haunting song on Hejira, a classic in itself, and a kind of coda to “Amelia”).

Of course that summary doesn’t capture why “Amelia” is so compelling. Maybe it has something to do with the way JM conjures up the feeling of “driving across the burning desert,” stopping off at places like “the Cactus Tree Motel.” If you’ve done it, you know there’s something dreamy and hypnotic about driving through the desert, driving alone, on autopilot. They say all politics is local, and perhaps all love songs or lost-love songs are local, too, in the sense that they need to conjure up a specific landscape to ground them. (Think of “Brown Eyed Girl”: “… making love in the green grass/ Behind the stadium …”)

But landscape and summary can’t capture the mesmerizing beauty of “Amelia’s” melody, always difficult to describe in words but always inextricable from a song’s spell. The seductive melodic line send’s JM’s lyrical images of flight aloft.

Listen to the first 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

I don’t know about you but she had me at “hexagram of the heavens.”

There are so many great lines, I’ll just quote a few more from the end:

I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel
To shower off the dust
And I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust
I dreamed of 747s
Over geometric farms
Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms

Which brings us to the question at the very heart of the song. It occurs to me that almost all great songs, all songs that get you to play them compulsively over and over again, do so because they’ve got you seeking something you never find, some haunting enigma that won’t quite disclose itself.

In “Amelia,” it’s the phrase, repeated at the end of every verse in one form or another: “Amelia; it was just a false alarm.”

Just what was the false alarm? False alarm becomes a tricky concept when you get into it, because on the most mundane level, the fact that an alarm is false is good. One of the rare instances where falsity is, if not a virtue, then an unexpected blessing. Because, obviously, the danger presaged by the alarm turns out to be—after some drama—an illusion.

On the other hand, “false alarm,” when used colloquially, is more often taken to be analogous to—if not synonymous with—”false hope.” The alarm a mistaken awakening of hope. To some it might suggest Amelia Earhart crash-landed and stranded on some Pacific atoll, thinking she sees a sign of rescue on the horizon. Nope. Just a false alarm.

But I’m not sure the singer here wants rescue. She seems in some ruefully voluptuous way to be reveling in her hejira, getting deliriously deep into her disillusion and disenchantment, exploring the unmapped territory of her newfound solitude like the eponymous aviator in the dreamy solace of long motel-punctuated drives. It occurs to me that in some way that’s what “Amelia’s” enigma or paradox is about: True love is far more alarming than a false alarm. True love is truly alarming. Real danger. She’s in some respects grateful. It was a false alarm. For an independent spirit like Joni Mitchell, it may be better to have loved and lost than to have loved and won, which can be truly terrifying.