Joni Mitchell - Blue
SOME records demand a feature of their own and…
a complete unpicking. I feel fewer of us are committing to vinyl in a romantic and impassioned way – prefer to hang them on the wall or keep them in the home (in case they increase in value or are needed down the line). The more prolific and intensifying digital music becomes: the contrary part of me reverts to a childhood state where vinyl was played irony-free and to the pleasure of all within earshot. This piece provides some words from others but I was keen to have my say on a record, I feel, sound peerless on vinyl. To me, the experience of listening to vinyl, is shutting other people away. That might sound antisocial but there are some albums one needs to experience alone. Joni Mitchell’s Blue is one of those records not really fitting for a social gathering. Of course, one wants to pass the songs through the ages but radio is made for that – Blue, on vinyl, is one of those experiences every human should go through. I share similar sentiments when addressing Paul Simon’s Graceland. To me, Mitchell is one of those artists that divide opinion. Her songwriting is beyond comparison – one of the finest from all of music. Like Bob Dylan; the voice is the aspect of Joni Mitchell that can cause some to wince. It took me a while to bond with her voice: such is its unique edge and bracing nature; it was a gradual process of ‘acceptance’. When she sings with beauty and tenderness: it is bird-like and sands away all the rough edges. It is the personality and physicality Joni Mitchell puts into each performance that reaches deep inside me. She is a songwriter that still inspires new artists and someone whose legacy cannot be tarnished. I wonder whether she will record more material: there is a demand for the kind of music/sound only she can provide.
IN THIS PHOTO: Joni Mitchell looking from te window of her Laurel Canyon home in October, 1970. PHOTO CREDIT: Henry Diltz/Henry
There is a debate as to which Joni Mitchell record is her definitive moment. To me, actually, I switch between Court and Spark and Clouds. The latter is Mitchell’s second album and, although it contains Both Sides, Now and Chelsea Morning – it has not been received as rapturously as Blue. The same can be said for Court and Spark and, whilst it has Free Man in Paris and Help Me on it – it is shaded by the majesty of Blue. Court and Spark arrived three years after Blue (in 1974) and marks the end of her ‘Purple Period’. I name it as such because if one mixed ‘Blue’ with the red imagery of For the Roses – the album that arrived 1972 – you would get a purple-looking result. This is best defined in Court and Spark which pulls the best elements of Blue and For the Roses together. Those albums, in fairness, arrived in the middle of Mitchell’s finest phase. From Clouds (1969) to 1976’s Hejira – Mitchell produced album-after-album of peerless songwriting and priceless gems. I digress, but wanted to show what a body of work Mitchell has and why more people should listen to her. Blue is that critical favourite and the one many people bond with closest. Maybe it is the emotion and vulnerability; the incredible vocal range and the spine-tingling, vivid stories. If you have a chance to buy Blue on vinyl; I urge you to do so. It is a record one can listen to, lying on their back with the lights dimmed (candle, perhaps, burning with orange-scent against the flicker of a summer-framed curtain; stars blushing coquettishly in the nakedness of the night’s sky) and drift away. The mere formality of setting the scene conveys poetry (or my attempt at it) and heady wordplay. That is the effect Blue has on the unsuspecting and initiated alike: it is a masterpiece whose immaculate arrangements are best enjoyed through vinyl.
I said I’d bring other interpretations into the mix and, before discussing some of the themes and background behind the record, wanted to source an article I discovered recently. Four years ago, writing for The Atlantic, Jack Hamilton argued why Blue is the best ‘relationship album’ ever:
“For better or worse, we live in a culture where lifelong, monogamous commitments are widely held to be the desired ends of romantic life: Romantic comedies end in weddings, and Hallmark doesn't make Valentine's Day cards for open relationships. For those who buy into this norm, the downside is that in our best-case scenario—our best-case scenario—every single relationship we ever have, except for one, will end and end badly. Otherwise, as they say, they wouldn't end… Blue is a confessional that implicates us in its crimes, and in doing so ever so slightly absolves us of our own. And if at times it holds a brutal mirror to our collective inadequacy, it's not without its fairy tales. Immediately after "River," as if from some other world, comes the album's most unabashedly joyous song, "A Case of You." It's one of Mitchell's most beloved compositions, covered by artists ranging from Diana Krall to Prince. There's a moment at the top of its second verse, the one that begins "I'm a lonely painter / I live in a box of paints," when the entire track seems to suddenly swell and almost burst, a beautiful shock of intensity that recedes almost as soon as it appears. And in that one heart-racing, vanishing instant everything makes sense, because if we can only find our way back to that, that moment, that feeling—to find that would mean to be happy forever.”
I have condensed and created a portmanteau because – read the full piece to get a less impressionistic truth – it has a resounding heartbeat: Mitchell’s 1971 magnum opus comes from her soul but can be extrapolated by everyone.
I shall come to the ins, outs and technicalities of the album – before offering conclusion and summary – but one need understand the fragile state Mitchell was in recording Blue. She has experienced painful breakups with Graham Nash – whom she was deeply in love with – and James Taylor. Both exceptional songwriters but each relationship was very different. In the case of Taylor; Mitchell was with him for a short time – when the songwriter was in the throes of heroin addiction – but it has intensity. The confusing and heartbreaking contrasts of each relationship had a profound effect on the young musician. She was able to articulate a sense of beauty, acceptance and retrospect in Blue’s finest moments. Three of her finest songs - A Case of You, River and The Last Time I Saw Richard - have desperate sadness and that need for escape. She was living in the public eye and her creative existence was a transposed and skewed mirror against the polemic fracture of her personal life. To journalists and music-lovers; she was an icon and was being elevated to goddess-like realms. Walking a tightrope in private: she was frail, fragile and near the point of constant teariness. Mitchell’s success, following Blue, meant fellow West Coast-based confessional songwriters like Carole King and James Taylor provided something incredible to music in the 1970s. In a career-spanning piece regarding Joni Mitchell’s music; Sean O’Hagan, writing in The Observer, offered some of his keen observations about Blue:
“Blue, though, also signalled in more subtle ways the more dramatic musical shift that was to follow. Listen to the way she enunciates the very first notes of the title song, settling on the word “blue”, stretching and bending it across an octave or two in the manner of a seasoned jazz singer. Then there’s the joyous lilt and sway of Carey, one of several songs of wanderlust that, across the years, testify to a relentlessly restless spirit. The term folk singer no longer contained her, nor increasingly did singer-songwriter which, by then, was becoming synonymous with a certain kind of plaintive Californian narcissism”.
Following the success of her first three albums – and songs like Woodstock – and a painful breakup with her long-term boyfriend, Nash; Mitchell embarked on a trip around Europe. Holidaying on the island of Formentera; she began to write songs that would appear on Blue. The ghosts and scars of her twin breakups were incorporated onto the album but it is the tracks Blue and All I Want that refer to James Taylor and the intoxicating bond they share. In fact, Mitchell was in a happy frame during the initial stages of the album’s creation. There were difficulties between her and Taylor – exasperated by the third person in the relationship: heroine – but she felt Taylor was the man that would anchor and stabilise her. When Taylor’s fame exploded – albums like Sweet Baby James (1970) catapulted him into the limelight – that caused friction in the relationship. The album is viewed as one of music’s finest so it was not a surprise to see Taylor, following the success of the record, become a lot busier and changed. The inevitable break-up devastated Mitchell who foresaw a happy and secure life with Taylor. Mitchell explained, in interviews years after Blue was released, there was not a dishonest note on that record. She compared herself to cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. That is an image perfectly fitting and one that could only be expressed by Mitchell. She was a protective layer around a noxious box: an outer-layer exposed to destruction and discarded ignorance. She was a without secrets and, such was the enormously open and devastating nature of Blue, it led some to wonder how much she was keeping for herself. One of the reasons I adore the album because it has that classic, tight and economic layout. It is a ten-track record with short titles. Songs, predominantly are three/four-minutes-long and, quality-wise, there is even distrubution. The longest-titled song ends the record (The Last Time I Saw Richard) and the title-track appears at the half-way mark. River; inarguably sad and touching, is the antepenultimate track and there is a real and intuitive knowledge of where each track needed to be.
PHOTO CREDIT: Henry Diltz/Henry
If the songs were rearranged (order-wise) and the record would be weaker. There are five tracks on each side and one would be hard-pressed to say which side is stronger. Each song on Blue has its own story and heritage. Mitchell wrote Little Green in 1967 and it relates to her daughter – who she placed for adoption in 1965 where she was a poor Folk singer in Toronto. Mitchell was in no fit state to raise a child at this time. She was dirt-poor and struggling. Mitchell was reunited with her daughter in 1997 but Little Green is a heartbreaking and refreshing number about a hard time in the songwriter’s life. Carey was inspired by the time she spent with a group of cave-dwelling hippies on Crete. Many feel the song is about James Taylor but Mitchell revealed it was, actually, about a character called Cary Raditz – a cane-wielding chef with vivid red hair she met in Malta (when travelling Europe in 1970). The title-track has that immortal stand-out: "Acid, booze and ass/needles guns and grass/lots of laughs". Maybe it is about a romantic partner or a certain time. In any case; it is an intoxicating and incredible song. California, the second single after Carey, features James Taylor on guitar and was written when Mitchell was living in France. She was longing for the creative climate of California and, so distant from home, would go to extreme lengths to be reunited with home – even kissing a policeman which, to a counterculture icon, is an act of betrayal and ambiguity. The song is Joni-back-in-control-and-looking-ahead; it is her groove and determination – a dream to be in the bed of California and entwined in its muscular legs, warm arms and hair-stroking tenderness. The stream-of-consciousness lyrics, similar in nature to Carey, depart from a statelier and structure-led song like Blue. The tango-flow and verse-bridge structure excited critics. The artist, wherever she would travel, always yearned for the familiarity and comfort of home. This Flight Tonight, a simple regret about jumping a plane and leaving behind a lover is still, despite its obvious story, full of deep-woven tapestries and delicate stitching.
PHOTO CREDIT: Henry Diltz/Corbis
I will not examine River forensically as, I believe, one needs to hear the song and simply hear it. In any case; it is Mitchell’s most-recorded song and an incredible portrait. One of those songs that elevated her above her peers and showed why there was/is nobody like Joni Mitchell. A Case of You, many have theorised, is about her time with Graham Nash. The ingénue Canadian artist and the British musician Graham Nash seem like an unlikely match but, it seemed, shared more in common than most married couples do. A lot of the lines hint at origin and truth:
“Oh you are in my blood like holy wine/You taste so bitter/and so sweet, oh/I could drink a case of you darling and I would/Still be on my feet/Oh, I would still be on my feet”.
The Last Time I Saw Richard, could I guess, could be about her brief marriage to Chuck Mitchell. One of the advantages of the ‘Internet age’ is one can learn about these songs and become more involved with the music. It is great interpreting and having your own ideas but, knowing where these fantastic pieces of music originated, provides a much deeper and more educated aspect. I listen to Blue and am hit by the emotion, exceptional vocals and stunning compositions of each. The sheer sophistication and beauty of her music – especially on Blue - set Mitchell aside from her peers. She is, forty-six years after Blue’s release, one of the finest writers in music and constantly compels and inspires young songwriters emerging. I know so many and, before leaving this piece, wanted to distil what Blue means to me – and why it is an essential vinyl purchase everyone should have. One can, in all good record shops, finds Blue and get it for a reasonable price. The optimum listening environment is, as I said, alone in a room with eyes half-closed – the way one would do when bathed in the hazy sunshine of a summer afternoon. It does not matter if it’s after-dark or enveloped in the bright light of the day.
There are, perhaps, better albums than Blue but there are few that provoke the same fascination and addiction. It is fitting, given its indirect links to heroin, there is that un-putdown-able nature of the record. One cannot help but repeat songs and become entranced. It is an album that stems from a personal time and place (and space) and, as other journalists have remarked, is a universal offering. We can all, in our own way, identify with many of the lines and expressions Mitchell voices. If one cannot directly relate to the songs of heartbreak and bitterness: we can all appreciate the music and the divine beauty of Joni Mitchell. Her voice, as I said, is one reason many do listen to her music but it is her greatest tool. She elongates syllables and gives each line her utmost consideration. Her voice is not an oil painting or boring creation: it is an impressionist, Dada-esque; stunning work of Romanticism that treats words as cherished possessions. At a time when so many singers waste words and have no ear for expressionism – musicians like Joni Mitchell show what happens when treating language and personal poetry with the respect it deserves. There were albums that had the same ambition and quality as Blue in the 1970s: today, there are far fewer records that have the same gravitas, colour and history as Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece. It is a record that defines an era but has a timelessness that is seeing its progeny (the artists it inspires) go out into the world and learn from it. Make sure you get yourself to a record shop; remove its sleeve – with all the allure, excitement and tease it warrants – and drop the needle. From there, as the first track crackles from the speakers; you will hear those first few words: “I am on a lonely road…”. Listening to those words, and the album, and one is on a road. It is not lonely: it is packed with adventure, vistas and wondrous possibilities. A timeless and near-peerless record…
EVERYONE should treasure.