Classic Album Review: Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971)

Written by: Paul Horsman

It’s good to share. So each month we’re recommending an album that, if you’re not already familiar with, you should really go and investigate.

Joni Mitchell - Blue

“Oh Joni – save something of yourself.” This was the response of musician Kris Kristofferson after listening to a collection of songs that would become Joni Mitchell’s most beloved album Blue.

Exploring themes of love, regret, sorrow and loss, these ten tracks exposed a level of emotion that could only have come from personal experience. Mitchell had bared her soul.

Blue is an adult album. It’s not full of swear words, explicit sex or violence. But it confronts you with a nerve touching rawness, something deeply real that younger audiences might not be able to process properly. It’s rather telling that Laura Marling, the closest thing this generation has to a Mitchell, wasn’t allowed to listen to it as a child.

A natural beauty in her prime, Mitchell followed a failed marriage with an impressive string of romances involving musicians David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Leonard Cohen and James Taylor. As a result, there has been a fair amount of speculation over who actually inspired these confessional songs of heartbreak. But when Mitchell repeats over and over: ‘I just want to make you feel free’ in opening track All I Want it simply doesn’t matter. That voice, those words and the sentiment behind it… you just long for it to be about you.

There’s no denying that Mitchell’s singing style is an acquired taste. Some would call it twee. When hearing Blue for the first time, the songs My Old Man and Little Green support this theory with their pretty and quaint melodies. But a few more listens uncover a dark undertone. ‘But when he’s gone, me and them lonesome blues collide’ she mourns on the former, whereas the latter addresses her decision to put her daughter up for adoption.

Mitchell admitted years later that: “During the making of Blue I was so thin skinned and delicate that if anyone looked at me, I’d burst into tears.”

Nowhere does this sound more apparent than on the stunning title track. The fragile lyrics, the sombre tone in her vocals, the way she stretches the notes into unfamiliar territory; it’s the sound of someone feeling utterly alone.

There is some light relief. Carey, California and This Flight Tonight are welcomed breathers. But darkness always looms around the corner.

Out of the trio of forlorn songs that closes the album, River contains her most simple yet moving line: ‘I made my baby say goodbye.’ A Case Of You likens her subject (reportedly Leonard Cohen) to her favourite tipple, intriguingly unsure whether it’s an unhealthy declaration of love or a bit of a put down: ‘You are in my blood like holy wine, you taste so bitter and so sweet/I could drink a case of you and I would still be on my feet.’ The Last Time I Saw Richard then leaves us with the bleak image of Mitchell spending lonely days sitting in darkened cafes, where she’s perhaps remained an insolent outsider ever since.

Whether she wanted it or not; Blue made Mitchell a star. Its sophisticated arrangements set her apart from her peers and freed her from the dreaded ‘folk singer’ label.

It also kick started a creative peak in her career – all her albums in the early-to-mid seventies have magical moments. But it’s Blue that is regarded her most influential and found Mitchell at the very top of her game.

Author: Paul Horsman

Paul likes writing. And music. It’s unclear whether he likes sharing his suggestions with others or simply likes unleashing an ugly critic within… but we allow him to write about music on The Void.

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