“Shadows and Light” Joni Mitchell

“Shadows and Light” Joni Mitchell

“Shadows and Light” is a great song, but I think there’s no way to think that when hearing it for the first time.  “What the hell is this?” you’re bound to think – and why wouldn’t you?  That awful 70’s synthesizer that’s barely present anyway (and, in a description from the original Rolling Stone review was derided as “a long, solemn fart”) is the only instrument surrounded by what can only really be described as a chorus of Joni’s turning her harmonious style into something like bland chanting.  I had listened to “Shadows and Light” any number of times as the song that follows “Sweet Bird” – which takes no time at all to realize is a great song – on The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and had to admit it had become a little comforting in its spareness.  But then I heard it on The Last Waltz in a version that was one of the unreleased numbers she performed with The Band (only her version of “Coyote” was included in the movie and original album), and it changed everything – performing it as a “completely normal” song with guitars and drums had to be the strangest thing I’d ever heard, even stranger then its Gregorian weirdness on regular record.  But hearing it performed like that is a bit of a veil being lifted about the original – it makes you acutely aware of the anger in the lyrics.  Without all this metaphysical chanting around “God of cruelty” or “Devil of delight,” you hear just the angry bits of bourgeois criticism that make up the song and, ending the record, define the themes of the album – “Threatened by all things” now becomes an indictment rather than an observation.  Why “Shadows and Light” is great is because it is, ultimately not an indictment despite being written like one.  Hearing the song after hearing The Last Waltz version unmasks its hope and awe – and truly unites those two.  As the song gets completely silent for its most iconic line (amongst many others – it’s silent a lot), “Hostage smiles on presidents, freedom scribbled on the subway” it’s a song that plumbs the vicious dichotomies of modern societies, but unlike the most self-conscious songs on Summer Lawns, its form lets them be – it stands with understanding for who and what we are, the good and the bad.  For an album as critical as Summer Lawns, the truth is “Shadows and Light” isn’t just a relief, it’s a release.

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