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Joni Mitchell: Cactus Tree

I didn’t know who Joni Mitchell was until I went to college and fell in love—and really I can’t think of better music with which to have ventured all that acute desire, doubt, and ambivalence. The first of her albums with which I became properly obsessed was Mitchell’s fourth, Blue (1971), which, yes, translates to “A Case of You” on repeat for… a year? More, probably. But I did eventually work my way through the rest of her astonishing output, including Song to a Seagull (1968), her debut, which ends with “Cactus Tree.”

This piece is so beautifully constructed; so much of the story is told with irresistible details like, “She has brought them to her senses.” I also love its use of negative space—three of only five stanzas in which the proper subject of the song is merely a concept, an absence: “While she’s so busy being free.” Only in the penultimate stanza (There’s a lady in the city…”) is “she” finally addressed.

You know that thing they say about how the Mona Lisa’s eyes look at you no matter where you stand? “Cactus Tree” does that. As I hear it over time, it tells various stories: about connection, about reticence, the unsolvable puzzle of “yes” or “no,” independence, loneliness. With that final paradox, “her heart is full and hollow,” this song does one of the most comforting things a song can: it embraces the incongruous—something senseless and entirely true. I always want to hear it. 

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