On Tuesday evening, I found myself surfing for something to watch on Hulu. I landed on the pilot episode of the show “Better Things”, starring Pamela Adlon. I really enjoyed it: a forty-something divorcée, Sam, balances her roles as a struggling, working actress and mother of three daughters, all while navigating that fraught world of dating and romance. Great writing, lots of humor (some of it raunchy), and thought-provoking editing. Another highlight: the soundtrack. The pilot included a musical sequence that was, for me, revelatory.
The versions of Joni Mitchell’s song “Both Sides, Now” with which most people are familiar are probably either Judy Collins’ 1967 version (the first to be commercially released), or Mitchell’s own version, from her 1969 album, “Clouds”. The latter recording is just Joni, age 25 or 26, alone with her acoustic guitar.
Here’s how she sometimes introduced the song at performances back in the 60s: “…in this song there are…two sides to things…there’s reality and I guess what you might call fantasy. There’s enchantment and disenchantment, what we’re taught to believe things are and what they really are.”
There’s certainly a seriousness, a reflectiveness, to the lyrics–“I really don’t know love at all”, “I really don’t know life at all”–and yet, sung as they are in this version by a young woman, in a crystalline soprano voice, with so much of her life ahead of her, one expects that she will, in time, come to know love, and life. All will be well.
The “Better Things” episode uses the version of “Both Sides, Now” from her 2000 album of the same name, and it creates a completely different mood. She’s backed by a 70-piece orchestra (and some lovely saxophone solos by Wayne Shorter) and the sound is lush and expansive. The tempo is slower and more deliberate, her delivery more reflective, and her voice–ravaged by years of heavy smoking–is deeper, huskier, more world-weary. It’s the same woman from the earlier version of the song, on “Clouds”, but thirty-plus years have passed, and now she’s resigned to the fact that she really doesn’t know love, or life, at all. Perhaps she never will.
There are a couple of reasons this hit me as strongly as it did. One is certainly the way the song perfectly complemented the scene over which it played: a late night exchange of texts, ultimately aborted, between Sam and a man with whom it seems she’s had a relationship in the past, someone who makes her laugh, but who may be stringing her along. [Interesting side note: I wanted to include the scene in this post, and I found it on YouTube, but the soundtrack was completely different…there must be some sort of copyright issue(s) preventing the use of songs in on-line clips, depending on who posts them. More importantly, the music chosen for the YouTube clip provides a fine example of how to utterly destroy a scene, so if you have an interest in seeing it, please watch it on Hulu!].
I think another reason the experience resonated for me is that I’m the same age Mitchell was when she recorded the later version (a year younger, actually), and the last several years have confirmed for me that, despite being firmly ensconced in middle age, there are aspects of love and life that will always remain elusive and unknowable. I’m grateful to Mitchell for giving voice to those sentiments in such a beautiful, and soulful, way.
I last wrote about Mitchell back in the earliest days of this blog.