What do I know about Joni Mitchell? I know I don’t know enough, or I’ve been made to feel that way by the music media. Certainly, as a woman, I’ve wronged myself somehow by leaving the majority of her catalog in mystery. I know she’s regarded as one of the greatest songwriters of all time, that she’s revered by generations of poets and bar-light philosophers, and that her sound transcends that of folk and 1960s soft rock.
Blue is the one. The oft-called best damn album anybody has ever made. It’s been named on at least 30 must-hear lists and is certainly Mitchell’s so-heralded best. I bet it’s sad. I read it’s about a few breakups, but it must be about more than that if it lives on so strongly, 50 years from its 1971 release.
Five of its 10 songs show up in her top hits on Spotify, the most from any of her albums and a good half of the hits the platform has room for. Those same five tracks share more than 220 million streams between them. That’s more than double the amount of streams on Billie Eilish’s latest single, which is impressive (even at five songs versus one) for a bunch of folk songs from half a century ago. I wonder if Eilish counts for any of those listens?
Alright, enough of the metrics. The best way to truly understand an album is to listen.
Right from the first acoustic strums and droning hand drums of opening track “All I Want,” we’re dropped into a total time and place. Blue is soaked in the lazy sun melodies of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; Mitchell’s conversational lyrics steeped in the parlance of hippie wanderlust. Jaunty standout “California” reads like a friendly postcard, a litany of travel tales and homesick musings any traveler can relate to. Her storytelling is unpretentious and yet so obviously skilled, the kind of plain poetry that makes prophets out of train hoppers.
The title Blue makes me think of Miles Davis, and it lives up to that jazzy legacy with lots of surprising melodic riffs. Six of the 10 songs include “blue” in the lyrics, and even when she doesn’t bring it up directly, the stories drip with some soulful poignancy.
Subtle and strong, most of these songs are recorded with just a piano, an acoustic guitar, a fretted string instrument known as an Appalachian dulcimer, and Mitchell’s indescribable, preternatural voice. It lilts and prances across her breathy tri-octave range like a little bird hops between tree branches. Her voice is funny and sad, bold and fragile, sarcastic and innocent, and everything in between.
Mitchell’s pain is evident in the Christmas-tinged “River,” a sorrowful holiday song for those who just want to escape the year and leave it in the past already — and yet, there’s still something confident about her remorse. Alanis Morrissette, Jewel, Sheryl Crowe, and all those ‘90s icons owe so much to Blue’s open-hearted humor and honesty. In one verse, she’s singing doe-eyed about her lover’s magical magnetism, then curling her lips into an exhausted sigh to note that he ripped off her camera.
There is a lot of conflicted love in these verses. “A Case of You” is so sweet and easy to love, but just like how drinking a case of wine would leave one sick, so too does the object of your adoration. Honestly, when I first read the words “A Case of You,” I thought it would be more like coming down with an illness. The double entendre does apply.
Most striking of all, though, is the story she tells on “Little Green.” I can’t imagine getting pregnant at such a young age, only to have the man who made me so run off to another country, chasing a dream. All the love in this song is directed at the guiltless child. I’ve never heard adoption explained so beautifully. “You’re sad, but you’re not ashamed,” she sings of herself. “Have a happy ending.” She lets the last note hang in the air for what feels like forever, like her eyes that can’t bear to tear away as the new parents make off with her kid. I was glad to read she and her daughter reconnected in 1997.
It’s true that Mitchell made the most of that freedom, though. A lot of this record was written during a fanciful romp through Europe, and it feels like it plays almost chronologically through that adventure. “Carey” is downright fun, a “bop,” as the kids might call it these days.
She isn’t afraid to get a little wild, either. I swear, “This Flight Tonight” is one John Paul Jones bass riff away from being Led Zeppelin’s kind of heavy rock — and the way she plays with the production to make it sound like her song is coming through her headphones? That’s ahead of its time experimentation even by today’s standards.
“That Last Time I Saw Richard” sums it all up. It’s an interesting place to end an album. It’s an unresolved ending, other than the fact she’s resolved to keep running down this human path of beauty and trust. Is any life ever resolved? We spend most of our time in emotional limbo, riding the roller coaster of life, becoming little Richards sometimes who wanna give up, needing a little Joni to come round and tell them to snap out of it.
Maybe that’s why this record persists. It’s the voice you need sometimes to light the way, to let you know you aren’t the first fool to stumble down a bohemian beach in search of some sweet grandeur or just, I don’t know, a party. It’s music for forgetting and remembering. Lyrics from a friend, a non-pretentious poet who’s telling it like it is. That sort of wisdom is truly timeless.
Published in partnership with Rhino.