25 Masterworks: Joni Mitchell – Blue
My Spin on Masterworks: 13 of 25
For a record that carries so much emotional weight, Blue can sound deceptively light and nimble to modern ears. Of course, there are plenty of unshowy artists in the modern fray; musicians and songwriters capable of approaching potentially stodgy topics such as love and heartbreak with grace and subtlety. Likewise, this isn’t a critique of artists of Adele’s stature, who manage to channel hurt with a bombast that can serve as a beacon for millions. Ultimately, no matter how they cut it, even the most restrained modern troubadour would struggle to rival the poise of Joni Mitchell’s early 1970s output; a sequence of records almost immaculate in its economy.
More than any other release in Mitchell’s extensive canon, Blue is an album of simplicity – and deceptive simplicity at that. Released in 1971 and holding an unwavering focus on the singer’s immediate history, the album’s autobiographical nature is clear from start to finish. Mitchell’s prior records are hardly artificial, but Blue saw her taking a huge step in bold and honest songwriting: the singer herself noted almost a decade later that Blue is an album stripped of defences, her lyrics transparent and barely a hint of fiction detectable. Mitchell pores over the harsh memories, her own emotional upheavals, and suggestions of broader disillusionment that coloured the tail-end of her experiences in the 1960s, allowing just the right amount of specificity to let these songs feel lived-in without being overwrought.
As such, Blue is a product of its time, but the use of now-outdated phrases (“wreck my stockings in some juke box jive”) are charming preservations of a scene, rather than holes in a would-be timelessness. And ultimately, Blue does sound timeless, due to Mitchell’s skilful articulation of painful ordeals, and for the honesty of her delivery. The setting is concrete and tangible, but the themes pack a universal clout, and the fact that the album’s power has continued to radiate for almost half a century is testament to Mitchell’s achievement. The familiar pairing of love and loss as subject matter has seldom sounded so frank as on Blue.
Rather than lay her troubles on the thick, Mitchell allows empty spaces to ring through the hollows in her music and verse. The warm and intimate ‘My Old Man’ is a remarkable composition which gracefully ties together the peaks and troughs of heartache, juxtaposing the sweetness of companionship with the sting of absence. Loneliness is articulated with a lightness of touch rather than fragile means or cracked sighs; the swirl of emotions kept in firm check without recourse to melodrama. It’s pulled off so deftly that the craft behind it is practically invisible, perhaps the most perfect example being Mitchell’s shift to a minor key as she sings “when he’s gone / me and the lonesome blues collide / the bed’s too big / the frying pan’s too wide”.
Blue is filled with such moments, where sorrow lingers quietly, rather than landing with devastating blows. The story behind ‘Little Green’ is painful enough to suggest an agonising frenzy of emotions, but it’s ground that Mitchell treads softly. In her early twenties, the singer was forced to give up her first child for adoption due to her impoverished circumstances, and in a song dating back to 1967, Mitchell allows her mind to wander to prospective futures, squeezing a kernel of hope for a “happy ending” for the daughter she barely knew. Her reveries are calm and quiet, but it’s with steady poise rather than a detached coolness that she composes herself, while touching on the unavoidable truth that “sometimes there’ll be sorrow” in a life she no longer within her influence. She envisages the future unfurling for her child, reflecting the full weight of the passing of years in a single line: “there’ll be icicles and birthday clothes”. It’s an emotional juggernaut executed gently.
To reduce the myriad qualities of Blue to a single mood or buzzword is reductive, as will always be the case for art in any medium. However, examining it broadly, what is consistently transmitted is a sense of lacking. Mitchell’s songs are transitional, looking forward as well as lamenting what has been left behind, in shifts that are occasionally represented as joyous, but are most often melancholy. Whether singing of soured relationships, her lost child, or the fade-out of 1960s idealism (“they won’t give peace a chance / that was just a dream some of us had”), Mitchell articulates the tension that comes from moving forward while struggling to process distressing experiences and bitter knowledge. ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ is a wrenching closer to the album; a glimpse into what could be an encounter between Mitchell and her ex-husband. As someone she once loved cruelly insists that all words are just “pretty lies”, the phrase lodges like a wound: the words are barely digestible to Mitchell, sung repeatedly as if in attempt to clarify their meaning. The final lyric of the album – “only a phase, these dark café days” – is tinged with equal dignity and despair.
The lyrics are met with comparatively straightforward compositions, wrung from modest tools. The busiest that Blue gets is the jittery folk stomp of ‘This Flight Tonight’, but for the most part, the album is unadorned by layers of instrumentation, keeping its roster to a select few. Melodies are clear and crisp to suit the candour of Mitchell’s writing, and for all its austerity, Blue retains a distinctive sound, thanks both to the brittle tone of the Appalachian dulcimer that reappears throughout the record, and the potency of Mitchell’s voice at its least crowded. ‘River’ swirls beautifully (its insistent piano line a mere hair’s breadth from ‘Jingle Bells’), performed with tenderness but isolated from the warmth that Mitchell observes on all sides: she’s surrounded by Christmas trees, decorated houses and glowing lights, but she doesn’t fit comfortably into the homely environs. ‘Blue’ itself is a quiet tour-de-force that highlights the purity of Mitchell’s voice as well as her gift for a gorgeous melody, and its lyrics provide the perfect core for the album’s titular mood.
Yet while it frequently draws from sadness, Blue is shaded wonderfully. There are pockets of infatuation (‘A Case of You’), agitation (‘This Flight Tonight’) and fledgling optimism (‘California’) which nestle alongside the weariness; a contrast which strengthens the whole rather than undermining the effect of individual pieces. Blue contains multitudes, its very specific tales articulated in such a way that they chime with the personal histories of its listeners: one woman’s troubles projected in a way that offers solace to others. Rather than a sweeping articulation of universal heartbreak, Blue is crushingly personal, but having selected her language with such care, Joni Mitchell was able to do justice to her own history while remaining inclusive for her audience. Her unflinchingly honest songwriting remains a beacon to this day.
Posted on September 17, 2016, in 25 Masterworks, The Music World and tagged 25 Masterworks, Album Review, Blue, California, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Little Green, My Old Man, Reprise, River, The Last Time I Saw Richard. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.