Fifty years ago, Joni Mitchell opened the doors to the soul of the songwriter on her fourth studio album Blue, released 22nd June 1971. In its raw intimacy, Blue set a standard for Mitchell’s peers and a challenge for her listeners, as she asked them sincerely, ‘will you take me as I am?’
On the title track, a deep, melancholy abyss at the heart of the album, Mitchell compares songs to tattoos: permanent, personal, close. ‘Hey, Blue’, she sings, ‘there is a song for you, ink on a pin / underneath the skin / an empty space to fill in.’ Within Blue, every space is filled in with perfect precision; nothing trails, nothing blurs, nothing frays, resulting in a pristine mosaic of human emotion, with not one word or note out of place.
Blue is often labelled a break-up album, on account of its bare, earnest portrayals of heartbreak, but merely terming the album ‘sad’ ignores the emotional complexity of the stories Mitchell tells. Behind the sorrow with which she describes giving up her baby daughter for adoption on the tender lullaby ‘Little Green’, lies the unshaken conviction that she was doing the right thing: ‘So you sign all the papers in the family name / and you’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed.’
Opening track ‘All I Want’ is a love song, but it’s a love song with its own requests, an extensive inventory of desires that are simple but just out of reach. Mitchell’s crystal-clear voice takes flight into a rapturous list of fantasies with barely a breath in between, radically placing emphasis on the phrase ‘I want’: ‘I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you, / I want to renew you again and again.’
In the soaring reverie of ‘A Case of You’, Mitchell is a ‘lonely painter’ who lives ‘in a box of paints’, letting the memory of her past love bleed into her lyrics. Vulnerable, but ever in control, she paints a searing portrait of a sublime, transcendental romance that is ‘lost’ before the song even starts.
‘River’ is the saddest, coldest tile in Blue’s mosaic of emotion, and its lyrics expose the deepest pain: ‘I’m so hard to handle’, Mitchell confesses plainly, ‘and I’m selfish and I’m sad. / Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had.’ Her vocals glide with a glassy smoothness that echoes the imagined frozen river as she leaves the line, ‘I made my baby say goodbye’, hanging trembling in the air, raw and unresolved.
Not all of Mitchell’s contemporaries were prepared to hear her ‘get real’ like this. In 2013, she recalled the response of some of her male peers to Blue:
Why were they horrified? The men, because it was a men’s world. Kris Kristofferson went, “Joni, keep something to yourself”, Johnny Cash said, “the world is on your shoulders”. They all recoil in horror as the game is to make yourself larger than life, don’t reveal anything human. And my thing is: why?
While critical response to Blue was largely positive, some in the media were more preoccupied with dissecting Mitchell’s personal life than her music. In 1972, for example, Rolling Stone placed her name, surrounded by a large pair of lips, at the centre of a diagram supposedly mapping celebrities’ professional and romantic relationships. The excessive attention and derogatory commentary Mitchell’s love life received wouldn’t have been paid to a male musician’s, but the frankness with which she spoke about her relationships was unprecedented. In 1971, Mitchell’s requests for freedom and equality in a relationship might well have been considered, as Ann Powers of NPR Music puts it, ‘pipe dreams or outrageous follies’.
The sexism that shaped Blue’s reception at the time is one of the reasons it has taken some time for Mitchell’s artistry on not only this record, but on her work throughout the 70s, to be fully recognised. Last year, Blue shot up from 30th to 3rd in Rolling Stone’s newly revised list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The writers explained, ‘along with its romantic melancholy, Blue was the sound of a woman availing herself of the romantic and sexual freedom that was, until then, an exclusively male province in rock.’ Furthermore, NPR Music has named it the greatest album made by a woman, and, writing for UNCUT, Robert Hughes describes it as a ‘landmark against which the work of all confessional singer-songwriters would be measured’.
The emotion Mitchell boldly displays in her lyrics on the album is mirrored in the restrained, sparse instrumentals, with just guitar, piano and Appalachian dulcimer accompanying her cool, liquid soprano. But she employs this minimal sonic palette to great emotional effect, from the restless piano ostinato that ripples through ‘Blue’, to the minor-key rendition of ‘Jingle Bells’ that opens and closes ‘River’.
The more cheerful tracks like ‘Carey’ and ‘California’ ring out with a bright, crisp sound that matches Mitchell’s light-hearted wit: ‘Met a red-neck on a Grecian isle / who did the goat dance very well. / He gave me back my smile / but he kept my camera to sell.’ These airy, uplifting melodies are no less musically or thematically complex, with Mitchell gliding effortlessly between octaves as she oscillates between the familiarity of her home and the lure of travel.
On ‘My Old Man’, an inky darkness descends the instant Mitchell pivots from the steady assurance of the verse (‘he’s the warmest chord I ever heard’) to the cold, trembling uncertainty of the bridge where she confesses, ‘But when he’s gone, / me and them lonesome blues collide. / The bed’s too big, / the frying pan’s too wide.’ All the attention to detail and unconventional honesty that make Blue the masterpiece that it is, are contained within this simple but poignant observation about a piece of kitchenware.
Right from the first track’s fickle lines, ‘I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you some’, Blue is an album of contradictions. Mitchell gives us the two contrasting moods of ‘My Old Man’, the opposing attractions of home comforts and exotic adventure on ‘Carey’ and ‘California’, and frantic indecision on ‘This Flight Tonight’. This duality culminates in closing track ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ which plays out a debate between the dreamer Mitchell and the practical Richard. He warns her, ‘all romantics meet the same fate, someday, / cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café.’ The song directly asks the question that has been implicit throughout the album: is the heartbreak worth it in the end?
And to close off an album that never treats any experience, emotion or relationship as straightforward and one-dimensional, we are left without a definitive answer. The song ends with Mitchell shaken but hopeful in the face of loneliness, defiantly choosing not to give up on love and hope: ‘Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away, / only a phase, these dark café days’.
Listen to Blue:
Bernstein, Jonathan et al. ‘The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time’. Rolling Stone. 2020, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/best-albums-of-all-time-1062063/bob-marley-and-the-wailers-legend-2-1063185/
Ghomeshi, Jian. ‘Oh sure, I blazed a lot of trails’. UNCUT. 2013, Accessible at: https://jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=2751
‘Hollywood’s Hot 100’. Rolling Stone. 1972, Accessible at: https://www.jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=3674
Hopper, Jessica. ‘Joni Mitchell: The Studio Albums 1968-1979’. Pitchfork. 2012, https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/17269-the-studio-albums-1968-1979/
Hughes, Rob. ‘Blue’. UNCUT. 2017, Accessible at: https://www.jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=4620
Powers, Ann et al. ‘Turning The Tables: The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women’. NPR. 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/07/20/538307314/turning-the-tables-150-greatest-albums-made-by-women-page-15