Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Breakup Songs: Coyote

Joni Mitchell: Coyote


Breakup songs generally sound like they are intended for an audience of one: the person being broken up with. The songs can express anger, heartbreak, or despair. They can express undying devotion, now unrequited. But the goal is often to make the case for why the breakup is happening. In truth, the singer is often trying just as hard to convince themselves that it is over as the current or former object of their affection. Coyote is not a typical breakup song, in that it depicts a relationship that the singer never intended to be permanent. But it shares this element of trying to convince both parties that it is over. This is a relationship that has already lasted longer than the originally intended one night stand. Joni Mitchell’s narrator must have originally intended to be gone the next morning without even a goodbye, and this seems to her to be a normal feature of a life on the road. It is a set of rules she thought both parties understood, but “Coyote” had other ideas. He collects women, and he treats them to a level of passion that draws them back like a moth to a flame. Mitchell’s character mentions that she can not and does not expect faithfulness here, but her main stated reason for going is simply that she belongs on the road, and can not be tied down. She is trying to convince both him and herself that what she would get back for this loss of freedom would not be sufficient compensation.

In my description above, I have referred to Joni Mitchell’s narrator. It is curious that the first Joni Mitchell song I thought of for our theme comes from her album Hejira. Mitchell was at this time trying to escape a reputation as a confessional songwriter. Her earlier brilliant relationship songs were certainly about herself, but she had made a break with that mode of lyric writing with her previous album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns. The songs on Hissing are told in the third person. They are stories about characters that Joni Mitchell invented, and they travel in worlds that Joni Mitchell clearly did not. Hejira is a trickier album to pin down. Even though Coyote is told in the first person, Mitchell asked her fans to not assume it was anything she had experienced; in particular, she didn’t want fans to speculate about the identity of any real life Coyote. I am sure they did anyway, and it would be one of the last songs Mitchell would record that could be construed as being about a recent event in her life. Her personal songs from later in her career tend to be about things that happened longer ago, and there are some great songs among them, but there is not the sense of immediacy that fans had come to expect, and that is found in Coyote.

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