Few albums have — or ever will — reach the timeless, iconic status of Joni Mitchell’s Blue.
In 1970, a 27-year-old Joni Mitchell fell under the eyes of the music press. Clouds had gone gold, and Mitchell’s fancy-free lifestyle could no longer shake the unflinching gaze of stardom. She was caught between a breakup and a new love, between Canada and California, fame and freedom, and it was all in the pages of Rolling Stone and Broadside. As these different publicized poles pulled her, she travelled and penned some of her most astounding poetry. Mitchell travelled through the Mediterranean, back to California, and then went home to Canada for a spell, taking new lovers, making new friends, and writing all along the way. She went ducking away from the tabloids and into whatever authentic experiences she could find, be they filled with pain or joy.
In 1971 she released Blue, an unparalleled masterpiece of songwriting that distills those opposing forces in her life down to the exploration of two: fame and authenticity. Blue took her audience to new depths of honesty. So intimate at times that listening to it can feel wrong, like reading someone’s flowery but personal diary. It was an antidote to the phoney throws of fame. In the end, a strange irony seized the record’s fate: Blue was a massive critical and commercial success. Now, fifty years later, we still talk about Blue in this same way. But fixing the album in these biographical details does a disservice to the pure, unexpired quality of Blue.
Part of the reason for Blue’s success is Mitchell’s innovative approach to the instrumentals. She didn’t fill the record with the typical poppy background singers of her previous albums or large radio-friendly folk arrangements. It isn’t meat-and-potatoes guitar and harmonica either. Blue is Mitchell’s first record using an instrument that was to become her staple — the dulcimer — which she strums alongside bright acoustic guitars. Mitchell learned to play the dulcimer on the island of Crete during her travels in Europe. She not only absorbed memories and experiences on her 1970 journey but musical skills as well. The record also includes more of Mitchell’s piano playing than previous works, which lends instrumental intimacy, lifting the lyrics right to our minds without distraction. Though the arrangements are smaller and allow the lyrics to shine, Blue is also Joni’s first flirtation with jazz ideas, something that infuses the rest of her musical career. Blue is an apt title not only because of the heartache and loneliness of Mitchell’s poetry but because the chord progressions and bass lines are coloured with gentle experimentation.
The sequencing of the album is also brilliant. Its tone goes up and down like a rollercoaster without being too jarring. “All I Want” sets the album rolling with upbeat dulcimer framed by flavorful guitar and percussion as Mitchell brings us travelling with her down “a lonely road.” Then we immediately swing to “My Old Man,” a quieter song with vocals and piano. This second song feels at rest in contrast to the motion of “All I Want.”It’s this contrast that solidifies the album’s tone. It’s like travelling to get to a new exciting place and discovering that the same heartache you left behind is there. Nestling the slow ballad “Blue”between the upbeat “Carey” and “California” is also a masterclass in album sequencing, snaking us through the emotional tunnels of travel, lost love, heartache, and a struggle with authenticity. “Carey” is a fun song about celebrating a final night with someone met along the road, but it’s also another exploration of fame and authenticity. While Mitchell enjoys travelling in that dirty, countercultural way, it isn’t honest anymore now that she has wealth and fame: “Maybe it’s been too long a time since I was / ramblin’ down in the street / Now they got me used to that clean white linen and that / Fancy French cologne.”
“Blue” is a gorgeous, melancholy ballad about suffocating sadness and heartache with noise, party, and travel. Following the title track up with two upbeat and friendly tunes (“California” and “This Flight Tonight”) is a bold choice that pays off. But everyone knows “Blue” isn’t the best ballad on the album; it’s moving, but not quite as affecting as “River.”
“River” is about missing home, but it’s also about missing a life that is impossible for a superstar to keep living. She sings, “But it don’t snow here / It stays pretty green / I’m gonna make a lot of money / Then I’m gonna quit this crazy scene / I wish I had a river / I could skate away on.” Skating back up north from California, away from fame, would be impossible, and even if it could be done, it wouldn’t address the blueness in Joni’s soul. It’s hard to feel sympathy for the rich and famous at times, but this song hits a nerve. The source of Mitchell’s poetry had always been honest-but-romantic experiences of working-class living and travel, and with stardom came the threat of losing this romanticism.
Blue is a travelogue teeming with emotional scenery. You’re taken places not through physical description but through the expression of how Joni felt in these places. Blue lets you venture through time and space contained in the capsule of Mitchell’s heart. But once again, simply situating the album in Mitchell’s life dries out its literary immortality. Blue is rich in characterization and storytelling and poetically nebulous enough to last at least another fifty years and still be an emotionally affecting work. If it came down from a rocketship and we had no way of tracing its origins, it would still be one of the greatest albums of all time.
Towards the end of Blue, Joni Mitchell tells us, “all romantics end up the same / cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe” (“The Last Time I Saw Richard”). Those words have now aged fifty years, yet the romanticism in Blue could never bore. The endlessly rich lyrics and the sparse but colourful instrumentals still glow brightly in 2021.