Joni Mitchell – Blue
Released June, 1971
Joni Mitchell earned her chops on the folk circuit in her homeland of Canada and later in America. It was in California that a young David Crosby heard her singing in a bar. He took her to Los Angeles and convinced his record label to record her debut album “Songs to a Seagull”. This resulted in a fair bit of traction that led to her second album “Clouds”, which earned her the first of eight Grammy Awards. Her third release “Ladies of the Canyon” saw her move away from her folk traditions and more towards her love of Jazz. This album saw great commercial success and cemented Mitchell as one of the great singer-songwriters of the time.
By the time Mitchell started working on “Blue”, her most critically acclaimed album, times had started to change. The ‘Summer of Love’ had been and gone and hippies had started to remove their rose coloured glasses. There comes a point where one must leave their youthful optimism behind as the reality of life starts to set in. Now at the age of 28, with the experiences that life and fame had thrown at her, she approached “Blue” from a different place. She had been married, divorced and worldly travelled by the age of 24 and she was by this point starting to struggle with the adoration shown towards her. She said in an interview to Rolling Stone Magazine in 1979 – “That’s why I became a confessional poet. I thought, “You better know who you’re applauding up here”…” It was a compulsion to be honest with my audience. I was demanding of myself a deeper and greater honesty, more and more revelation in my work in order to give it back to the people where it goes into their lives, and nourishes them, and changes their direction, and makes light bulbs go off in their heads, and makes them feel. And it isn’t vague. It strikes against the very nerves of their life and in order to do that you have to strike against the very nerves of your own.”
Whilst rooted in folk, to call Mitchell a folk singer would do her an injustice. Her open-tuned guitar and sparse but sophisticated piano playing set her above standard folk music. Her voice alone was used as an instrument, even more-so here on “Blue”, as she starts to introduce more jazz styling to the way she sings the lyrics. Her voice sweeps in an out, soaring to stretch out some words which then juxtapose against sections all sung at rapid pace. Whilst “Blue” does have its sombre and introspective moments there are also moments of lightness, much like life. Sometimes we have moments of sadness and reflection but more often than not these sit right alongside moments of joy and frivolity. Life isn’t static, it’s a fluid and ever-changing thing. Much like last week’s offering by John Lennon (“John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band”), Mitchell took a risk in allowing herself to be so vulnerable and honest on “Blue”. To be so self-reflective runs the risk of sounding self-absorbed and pretentious. When done right however it allows the listener to connect on a more deeper level. Because of that personal level however, you will either really connect to this album or not. Her voice and guitar style is unique and if one doesn’t like it I imagine it could end up being quite grating.
I’ve been listening to this album for well over a decade and I consider it to be one of my all-time favourite albums. The title track ‘Blue’ is without a doubt my all-time favourite song. The lilting piano often feels like the ebb and flow of the ocean on the shore, which reflects the lyrical content. The way she holds that final words slays me every single time. Joni Mitchell inspired a generation of singer-songwriters and made it okay to sing about our feelings and life and all of the messy stuff that goes with it. She is foremost a poet and a painter, she just happens to use music and her voice as a way to paint aural stories. She is what I consider a true artist, one who creates primarily for themselves in order to make sense of the world around them. It is artists such as these that help me make sense of the world around myself. I quite simply can’t imagine my life without “Blue” in it.
“Blue” is a very pretty album. It’s very simple, production wise, with few musicians performing, relying mostly on Joni Mitchell’s vocal, piano and guitar. In fact, most of the tracks on the album are solely Mitchell. Because of this, it’s quite easy to get a grasp of her talents. Her piano, while not extravagant, is basic yet effective. Where Joni Mitchell really shines is her impressive vocal range. She spends an awful lot of time in her upper registers. She’s always very crisp and clear, but if we’re honest it does get a bit much. Almost every review of read for “Blue” says it’s brilliant, one of the best albums ever, and other such gushes. I guess that’s why I’m not a professional music critic. I think I could name at least 100 albums I like more. Though we’re not here for albums I like. There’s no doubting Joni Mitchell’s influence. Listening to “Blue”, I could hear a lot of Tori Amos and Katie Noonan, and even the Led Zeppelin song ‘Going To California’ is said to be about Robert Plant’s obsession with her. Jimmy Page uses a double drop D tuning, similar to Mitchell’s. Picking a favourite track from “Blue” was tricky for me, as I sometimes struggled to differentiate between tracks. The songs that featured other musicians were definitely winners. ‘California’ was pretty cool, with James Taylor on guitar. It’s got a very chilled, relaxed feel to it. I find it ingesting though that she’s saying she’s coming home to California. Did you forget you’re Canadian, Joni? I can see why “Blue” was such a raging success. Allmusic.com gave it five stars, Robert Christgau gave it an A, Rolling Stone Album Guide also gave 5 stars. That’s high praise. It’s a lovely album from an extremely talented musician.
I was first introduced to Joni Mitchell by my Dad, when I was about 16 he got this ‘Hits of the 70’s’ album which had ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on it. Dad doesn’t really like Joni, but she stayed with me forever. Over the years I have branched out and added to my Joni collection, in fact it was Ang who first gave me the album “Blue”. The title track remains my favourite song ever. I love the lyrics, and Ang and I have oft talked about getting ‘crown and anchor’ tattoos. Actually, I also have a blog titled ‘ink on a pin’, which is a lyric from ‘Blue’ and my tribute to Joni. “Blue” is an emotionally-charged album and part of that emotion comes from Joni’s tone. Her voice is high and sweet, and has a vulnerability to it. The album explores love in all of its forms; obsession, insecurity, jealousy . I love all of the tracks for different reasons, but I particularly love ‘California’, where Joni pines for her beloved locale, ‘A Case of You’ for the way in which Joni likens her lover to a fine bottle of wine, a song which now sees me singing ‘Oh, Canada’ every time someone talks about the country. Plus, James Taylor (aka my musical soul mate) played the acoustic guitar accompaniment on it. There are not enough words to describe how I feel about this album or to explain what made it one of the definitive folk albums of the 70’s, but for me, it has left an indelible mark on my heart, I know that sounds corny but it’s the truth. There’s a line in the movie “Love Actually”, where Emma Thompson‘s character tells her husband ‘Joni Mitchell taught your cold English wife to feel. I love her – and true love lasts a lifetime.’ Listen to ‘Blue’ and you will understand.
I’ve never been much of a fan of Joni Mitchell. I like ‘Big Yellow Taxi’, but that’s about it. I still haven’t forgiven her for ruining Neil Young and The Band’s rendition of ‘Helpless’ in The Last Waltz. Her backing vocals were just awful, and totally unnecessary. She has a strange voice, but it gives her a distinct and unusual sound. It goes wherever Mitchell wants it go, and sometimes it’s a little dizzying for my tastes. I find her melodies are like rollercoasters; they go up and down when you don’t expect them to. When she sings in a higher register I find her voice quite shrill and grating, so I found this album hard to listen to. I did enjoy the stark production though, with the majority of the tracks employing either a light acoustic arrangement or a piano backing. I like the main riff from her detuned guitar in ‘This Flight Tonight’, and especially the little ‘Goodbye baby/Baby goodbye…’ effect. The way she incorporates ‘Jingle Bells’ into her piano playing of ‘River’ is nice too. When I could make them out, I liked some of Mitchell’s lyrics too. One of my favourites is from ‘California’: “He gave me back my smile/But he kept my camera to sell”. Mitchell had recently split with Graham Nash (of the Hollies and CSN), and much of this record is fueled by their breakup. I do admire her passion and how honest and bare she is, and after listening to “John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band” last week, it seems fitting for us to be here. Other songs I didn’t mind include ‘Carey’ and ‘My Old Man’. I can see the appeal and influence that Mitchell has had on other artists, but she’s not for me. I can’t see myself listening to this album again.