listening to joni: #4: blue

Blue, 1971

Front Cover
The back cover is solid blue. Inside, only lyrics and credits.
Ask people their favourite Joni Mitchell album, and you are very likely to hear Blue. In my experience, this is especially true of older fans who discovered the album in real time.

Blue is a masterpiece; there is no doubt of that. It is also the masterpiece that is more straightforward and accessible. When a Joni fan names Blue as their favourite, I wonder if this was the last stop on her journey with Joni's music. That may not be fair, but my experience continues to reinforce the theory.

In my post about Ladies of the Canyon, I wrote that in that album we hear foreshadowing of the future Joni. This is true. But after those first three albums, no one could have been prepared for Blue. With Blue, Joni rockets into an entirely different universe of talent. The music, lyrics, vocals, arrangements, the emotions and ideas expressed, are all light-years beyond what came before. Here Joni shows herself as a truly gifted artist and a musical pioneer.

I can't imagine how many times I've heard this album, yet listening to it for this project, Blue was as alive and meaningful and stunning as ever -- maybe more so, now that I hear it through my own life experience. (Incidentally, my Blue LP has always had a pernicious skip. Although I re-purchased it on CD as soon as possible, I still half-expect to hear the skip.)

I've mentioned that I love piano in rock. Blue is all piano -- not literally, but the richness of the piano lingers in my memory, overshadowing the sounds of any other instruments. For many listeners, the emotional quality of the music and lyrics have a similar effect: people remember this album as profoundly sad, as if the songs all reflect the album title. Yet "All I Want", "My Old Man", "Carey", and even "California" are celebratory, life-affirming, even ebullient. That's four of 10 songs that are not sad. But for many listeners, the effect of those other six songs is more abiding.

Rolling Stone chose Blue as #30 on its
500 Greatest Albums of All Time list,
but its treatment of Joni through the years
was brutal and sexist.
"River" has become a holiday-radio standard, so it's likely people don't really hear it anymore. I'm glad I don't listen to the radio, because for me this song is as gorgeous and meaningful to me as ever. In "River", Joni walks the path of Irving Berlin, a Jewish man from Brooklyn who penned the most famous Christmas song of all time while surrounded by the palm trees of southern California. By imagining skating on a river, Joni is wistfully recalling the winters of her youth: "...but it don't snow here, it stays pretty green, gonna make a lot of money, then I'm gonna quit this crazy scene". Shortly after Blue's release, she did just that, retreating to a cabin in British Columbia, and into isolation and a profound depression.

"River" is surely the saddest Christmas song of all time -- the godmother of "2000 Miles", another beautifully sad Christmas song, written by a huge Joni fan. "River" is also a tour de force for Joni's vocals -- here, at last, warm and rich and supple, used not as histrionics or to display technical ability, but to convey emotions: a feeling of flight, escape, abandon. "I wish I had a river so long, I would teach my feet to fly...". The same is true on "The Last Time I Saw Richard": "Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away." In both songs, the word fly soars on the sustained note.

When I was a teenager, "Little Green" was one of my musical obsessions. When the news broke that Joni had reunited with the daughter she surrendered for adoption, her fans instantly remembered this song. From David Yaffe's book, I learned that Kilauren's original name was Kelly -- a shade of green. Although Blue was released in 1971, Joni wrote this song in 1967, when her daughter was two years old.

If you know the Wilco song "Dash 7", I've always thought that it was influenced by "This Flight Tonight". Joni's song echoes the classic romantic comedy cliche -- "...turn this crazy bird around, I shouldn't have got on this flight tonight" -- but here, it's too late. The lover has already made the mistake, and it can't be undone.

Blue is chock-full of favourite lyrics. I'll mention only one more: "On the back of a cartoon coaster, in the blue tv-screen light, I drew a map of Canada -- oh Canada -- with your face sketched on it twice...". I see this scene so vividly in my mind that it's cinematic.

Blue is not only one of Joni's best albums, it's one of the greatest albums of all time.

Bad critic comment of the album

I've got two crazy critics for this one, one clueless and one disgustingly sexist, both from Rolling Stone magazine.

Timothy Crouse: "The pretty, 'poetic' lyric is dressed up in such cryptic references that it passeth all understanding." Really, Tim? You couldn't figure this out? We all knew what it was about.

In a feature article the year this landmark album was released, Rolling Stone dubbed Joni "Old Lady of the Year," tantamount to dismissing her as a muse to famous men.

It gets worse. Stay tuned for 1979.

The album cover

Even the cover of Blue was a departure. No self portraits or original Joni artwork here, just a shadowed silhouette photograph, revealing little while still unmistakably Joni, plus the deep rich royal blue.

On the back, only blue. And inside, only lyrics, white type on blue background.

If you're keeping score

I wanna wreck my stockings in some jukebox dive... -- "All I Want".

I'm not sure the waitress in fishnet stockings from "The Last Time I Saw Richard" counts.

I believe these are the first references to stockings, and we've got one cactus from the first album.

Other musicians on this album

Stephen Stills, bass and guitar on "Carey"
James Taylor, guitar on "California", "All I Want", "A Case of You"
Sneaky Pete, pedal steel on "California", "This Flight Tonight"
Russ Kunkel, drums on "California", "Carey", "A Case of You"

You should know all these musicians, so no links are necessary, but just in case: Peter Kleinow.

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