Released fifty years ago, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ is considered one of the finest singer-songwriter albums of all time. Lauded critically by fans and by both contemporaries and young musicians influenced by it, it is an album that retains a uniquely impactful quality on repeat plays over decades. Here we look at why ‘Blue’ has come to be an almost universally accepted classic.
Written across 1970 and early ‘71, a period in which Mitchell ended and entered into a series of relationships and spent time traveling in Europe, the album openly documents Mitchell’s feelings and experiences of that time with unflinching honesty. Much has been made of the who’s and when’s of Mitchell’s relationships by critics and fans over the years, perhaps partly fuelled by the openness of ‘Blue’, but it isn’t in these details that these tracks resonate. Instead, Mitchell speaks of intimacy, romance, lust, pain and connection with a matter of fact bluntness that captures the raw and real nature of the emotions. Whether fact or fiction, and Mitchell herself has discussed ‘Blue’ as her most completely transparent release, this treatment of her own very personal truth speaks to audiences in a way that is universally understood. Truth and beauty, strength in fragility, through the ten songs on ‘Blue’ we find wit, humour and deep sadness relayed in a manner that feels immediate and vulnerable and shared.
Built around acoustic guitar, dulcimer, and piano there is a warmth to ‘Blue’ that belies its title and a spry bounce that recurs that tempers any prolonged turn towards melancholy. Mitchell’s use of alternate open tunings at times lends an uncanny air to tracks but, more importantly, allow for inventive and unmistakable rhythms and accompaniment. Opening track ‘All I Want’ showcases this wonderfully allowing Mitchell to use her vocal range and talent to craft dense shifting melodies that act in complement and as counterpoint to the rhythm. As a tale of an all-consuming love affair destined to fracture, the track first introduces themes that, by the end of the album, are left uncovered and bare.
Elsewhere, on ‘Carey’, we’re introduced to exotic locales, humour and gleeful exuberance while ‘Blue’ brings a wistfulness while still hitting Rock ‘n’ Roll themes of “acid, booze and ass” before sighing a mournful “lots of laughs”. It’s a moment that is worn and weary, as if still caught in the precise instant, yet written in reflection with clear consideration. It’s this balance between rumination and in the moment emotion that Mitchell so expertly conveys throughout ‘Blue’. The result is a series of songs that self-reference each other, ‘California’ mentions the “red rogue” from ‘Carey’ for instance, yet the tracks have a sense of prescience and stream of consciousness about them.
Complex musically, blunt lyrically and with unrelenting emotional depth, ‘Blue’ can feel almost improvisational in its instancy and Mitchell’s ability to capture emotive lightning in a bottle. Every turn of phrase feels off the cuff with no filter and no temper to the sentiment that spawned it. A bitingly personal album, Mitchell has said that she faced some backlash from her contemporaries for her openness, likening the moment to Dylan going electric, as if they were threatened and fearful of having to follow suit. That in itself is testament to the power and importance of this record. That fifty years later it still feels confessional and private, that the listener is in on the secret, makes this an album worth recounting. By breaking barriers of intimacy and what is acceptable to tell in a Pop song, Joni Mitchell paved the way for new generations of singer-songwriters. More importantly, her lead shifted a male dominated space creating new avenues for female perspectives in pop culture. This accomplishment on its own would mark ‘Blue’ as worthy of continued note but the album needs no such structural, political or cultural value added to it. ‘Blue’ is discussed with reverence after fifty years because Joni Mitchell’s songs captured, better than many others, an emotive weight that keeps listeners coming back for more.