I Think I Understand
By Sunday Sommerfeld
I don’t remember ever sitting down and listening to Clouds (1969) in its entirety. It was one of those records that was always there, swimming behind memories of car trips and Sunday mornings. Over many years, and many listens, it has become one of my favourite records of all time (and I’ve got the ink to prove it). As a sophomore record, it both confirmed Joni Mitchell’s place in the folk world, and hinted at her instincts to mess around with it, to stretch its edges and to create her own unique musical language. Her presence is felt in every moment of the record, with Joni having produced, written and performed almost the entire thing herself. She even used her own self-portrait for the cover art. Clouds was the beginning of Joni carving out a space for herself, a space which became uniquely hers, and which she never yielded.
We are led into the first track ‘Tin Angel’ gently, hesitantly. To the unfamiliar ear, Joni’s melodies are jarring. They don’t move as expected, and you feel as if you are being drawn down a winding path, only able to see a few feet ahead at any given time. Eventually, Joni’s lilting tones become familiar, and you start to anticipate her peaks and troughs. You find yourself surrendering to the path ahead. You trust her to take you somewhere new, to some place you haven’t been before. If you’re anything like me, you’d follow her just about anywhere.
Clouds is a sketchbook of sorts. Joni spends the majority of the record sketching lovers, sketching friends — both real and imagined. These figures appear as angels made of tin, golden princes, saints, priestesses, and devils wearing wings. They always appear in parts, never whole, never fully understood. For all the beauty of her words, Joni struggles to reach any definitive answers. She guesses, she imagines, but still doesn’t know where she stands. There is comfort here, though. There is comfort in the unknown, and beauty in uncertainty. This is the lesson we learn with her, time and time again.
‘I Think I Understand’ was a track which I never paid much attention to before this year. After discovering that it was inspired by Lord of the Rings, and the vial of light which Galadriel (Joni’s favourite character, of course) gives to Frodo, I had to give it another listen. The track works well as a study of fear and depression, with its dark paths and voices in the night. I found comfort in its simple refrain: ‘I think I understand, fear is like a wilderland’. Once again, Joni is on the cusp of knowing something, apprehending a truth long-sought. But she is never sure. This idea returns time and time again, but never stronger than in the final and most well known track, ‘Both Sides Now’.
‘Both Sides Now’ is the thesis — the final word of the record. Tracing time, clouds, love and life, Joni attempts once again to discover something that is true. She arrives at the fact that she knows very little, perhaps nothing at all. The chorus melodically tracks this pattern, rising and falling in waves, and coming to rest at its lowest note with a sense of resignation. One of the things Joni does better than anyone is finding the balance between sweetness and sorrow. She deals in melancholy as often as comfort. She doesn’t have all the answers, and she doesn’t pretend to. Joni is just trying to have a conversation with her audience, and with herself. Clouds is, to me, the beginning of that conversation.
A tattoo of Joni’s face now peeks out from beneath the sleeve of my right arm – solemn, flower in hand. A recent addition, she sits in silent support of my every whim, as I stumble down the path ahead. She reminds me there is beauty in uncertainty and comfort in chaos. She watches on as I attempt to carve out a space for myself. A space which is filled with music and friends and magic and tea and, always, Clouds.
Sunday is an artsy lady based in Melbourne, Australia. She is one half of Tallulah Theatre, who make lovely things with lovely people. Check out the latest at www.tallulahtheatre.com!