“The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defences. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy.” — Joni Mitchell in Rolling Stone, 1979
Celebrating Blue, the fourth Joni Mitchell album on its golden anniversary, because we should.
Born in Fort Macleod in the Canadian province of Alberta midway through World War Two on 7 November 1943, Joni Mitchell was ”discovered”, somewhat belatedly, circa 1968 when ex-Byrd David Crosby pulled up in a sailboat outside the Florida club she was playing and took her to L.A. At the time, folk was out of fashion yet Mitchell managed to pull down an unprecedented major label deal for a girl and her guitar: total and complete artistic freedom, with the caveat that Crosby would produce her first album, the fin de siècle earth mama-isms of Song To A Seagull.
It was rare for a woman to be writing and recording her own material at the time, let alone to be an unaccompanied solo act. Mitchell would self-produce from hereon in. And after rapidly honing her act and growing in confidence with Clouds (1969), Ladies Of The Canyon (1970), on 22 June 1971 (the week I turned a tootsy two years of age) Joni released what is universally regarded as her magnum opus, the masterpiece of melancholy that is Blue.
With song after song of regrets and sorrow, Blue is possibly the most gutting break-up album ever made. Kinda like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours but with the unalloyed heartbreak ramped up to an impossibly maudlin degree.
After Mitchell’s relationship with Graham Nash dissolved, she headed to Europe to lose the tether of her fame, eventually taking exile in a cave on the Greek island Crete. The trip would inspire the how-Joni-got-her-groove-back ditties Carey and California.
The album is suffused with melancholy for all that is missing: her daughter (Little Green), innocence (The Last Time I Saw Richard), and connection (All I Want). Mitchell bleeds diffidence and highlights it with spare notes plucked out on her Appalachian dulcimer. While her countrymen pals Neil Young and Leonard Cohen were also pushing the singer-songwriter genre forward, none of them managed to stride the distance that Mitchell did here in a single album.
Then we go further down, as Mitchell gradually opens her heart even more. With This Flight Tonight we slowly descend into blackness along with the airplane and then find her wanting to escape the pretend-at-happiness of Christmas in River, where Jingle Bells still haunt her in the melodic structure, along with the relationship that just broke down.
Its whispery minimalism is also Mitchell’s greatest musical achievement. Stephen Stills and James Taylor lend an occasional hairy hand, but on Tonight and the devastating title track, Mitchell sounds utterly alone in her melancholy, turning the sadness into tender, universally powerful art.
“Will you take me as I am/ Strung out on another man?” Mitchell pleads. She was (in)famously strung out on other talents that were as mercurial as hers, fuelling constant speculation as to whether this song was about Cohen, or that one about Taylor or Nash or that puerile but handsome heartbreaker Jackson Browne.
I feel the main point here is that Blue isn’t just about wallowing in the mire in spite of Joni’s most recent break-ups; it’s an album by someone who has made the decision to move on although her initial feelings are still raw. So she’s travelling and seeing the world after the first break-up (Nash), and then follows the other one (Taylor, the best musical thing he ever did being the accompanying guitar here) which seems to leave her even without any protective layers.
The result is an album where Mitchell constantly contrasts her upbeat and downbeat moods and mixes them with each other. That certainly is true to life: often feelings aren‘t as pure and neatly divided as we‘d want them to be. Take the joyful yet tearful California, where she‘s almost giddy over coming home but expresses doubt over if she‘ll be accepted again, while mixing in homesickness with the bridge and even almost off-handedly throwing in that line about the world not giving peace a chance, a line that lesser songwriters would make a far bigger point about.
Today we might call it bipolar, but for me it’s a compelling emotional palette, with some disillusionment bleeding into the otherwise joyous arrangement.
The year Mitchell issued Blue, an album that would be a landmark in any artist’s career, Rolling Stone named her Old Lady of the Year, a bitchy dismissal effectively saying her import was as a girlfriend or muse to the men around her more than as an artist in her own right. Worse still, they called her Queen of El Lay, and offered a diagram of her supposed affairs and conquests. She’d made the best album of her career and in exchange she got slut-shamed in the biggest music magazine in America.
Nobody sang like Mitchell when Blue came out, though her vocal acrobatics have inspired multiple generations of ethereal singers like Regina Spektor and Tori Amos. Her voice is a wildly expressive, virtuoso instrument that swoops, dives, cajoles, flirts, breaks down, and breaks hearts. It’s rooted more in the wild flights of fancy and gutsy improvisation of jazz than the more polite world of folk.
Mitchell has never hid her love of jazz; Miles Davis was a key influence, and her albums moved into a much more jazz-focused direction in the mid and late ’70s. Joni even planned to collaborate on an album with jazz great Charles Mingus, though he died early in the process. In homage, she named the album they would have made together Mingus.
Even putting Blue to one side, there are a surplus of truly great, iconic, canonical Mitchell songs: Both Sides Now, Woodstock, Amelia, Coyote, Hejira, All I Want, Urge For Going, Edith And The Kingpin, Free Man In Paris. The albums from where they’re extracted capture something profound and ineffable about a Southern California where a new breed of bohemian artists were casting off their parents’ shackles and outdated attitudes, and finding potent new ways to hurt each other.
Mitchell’s generation didn’t want to make the mistakes their parents did, so they made a completely different set of mistakes, including the duet she did in the Eighties with Billy Idol entitled Dancin’ Clown. With its ticky-tacky rhythm track and queasy synth, it’s a garish period piece that may as well have a pink-and-blue neon sign attached to it blinking “1988, 1988,” the year her 13th studio album Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm was released. Even supporting artist Tom Petty couldn’t save her from embarrassment.
In any case, I think we all can agree that Dancin’ Clown is the worst song by one of the greatest artists ever, and the greatest video ever made, sort of. What struck me was a) we have the same taste in kettles (the now iconic Alessi 9093, as seen in Edina Monsoon’s kitchen in Absolutely Fabulous), and b) Joni Mitchell has no business owning a cat. Poor pussy.
Miaow. Happy birthday Joni.
The Joni Mitchell Digital EP Blue 50 (Demos and Outtakes) is streaming now
Thirty-Three Times A Lady: Olly Alexander on Joni Mitchell is here