Joni Mitchell: Blue
Album ReCue, a part of FUV's EQFM initiative, takes an on-air and online look back at influential releases by women that altered our perspective not only of the artist, but her invaluable impact on music history. Above, listen to a conversation with Alisa Ali and Kara Manning about Joni Mitchell's 1971 landmark album, Blue, and below, Kara's overview. WFUV gratefully acknowledges the support of EQFM by The Public Theater.
What to say about Joni Mitchell’s Blue that hasn’t been said a million times over the last five decades? Appraising this landmark album’s luminous light is like writing about the moon. Mitchell’s peripatetic song cycle and Earth’s lunar satellite share multiple qualities: they are mysterious, majestic, and beloved by brokenhearted romantics, poets, and songwriters. Both are frequently misunderstood and thought to be what they are not. Traveling to the moon and interviewing Joni are equally rare events, happening once in a blue moon — journeys completed by only a few lucky souls.
One such fortunate journalist is director Cameron Crowe who professionally befriended Mitchell long ago when he was a young reporter. Crowe, who has also written the liner notes to Mitchell’s new five-disc Joni Mitchell Archives - Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967), revisited her for a recent interview with the Guardian, published in October 2020, and he asked about Joni’s unusual dream that was part of Blue’s birth.
“I had a dream that I was a plastic bag sitting at a concert, and there were a lot of fat women on stage all playing strange instruments, like big tubas and accordions, and not hip instruments, you know?” she told Crowe. “I was sitting there, a bag of organs, sobbing in the audience, transparent – you could see all my innards. It was a strange dream. I tend to remember my dreams. They’re little movies, they’re visual. I tend to remember the things that are visual. That’s the way I was feeling at the time. I felt very vulnerable.”
Nightmares aside, that stark vulnerability frames the album’s astonishing candor, something which Mitchell also acknowledged over 40 years ago, telling Crowe in a sprawling Rolling Stone interview in 1979 that “there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals” on Blue. That honesty is most vivid on “Little Green,” Mitchell’s song about her daughter, whom she decided to give up for adoption. It’s an unapologetic, perceptive and persuasive song about one woman’s considered choice, and she deftly communicates, in just five lines, the arc of that decision:
"Child with a child pretending
Weary of lies you are sending home
So you sign all the papers in the family name
You're sad and you're sorry but you're not ashamed, little green
Little green, have a happy ending.”
While rafts of music critics (mostly male) have fixated on the men who might have (likely) served as the subject matter of Mitchell’s songs on Blue, whether Graham Nash (“My Old Man”), Leonard Cohen (“A Case of You”), a cook at the Mermaid café in Crete ("Carey"), or James Taylor, ultimately Blue is about Mitchell, alone. A solitary road is another necessary choice — something she lays out in the very first lines of Blue, on “All I Want":
"I am on a lonely road and I am traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling
Looking for something, what can it be
Oh, I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you some
Oh, I love you when I forget about me."
Only by forgetting about herself, can Mitchell love? And does that loss of focus, when pivoting to a man, cripple her own drive? “I’m a fool for love,” she told Crowe this year, discussing Blue, and it seems that the songs that landed in her mid-20s were a way of recognizing herself, solitary, away from all of those men with competitive artistic ambitions of their own. Tracks like “River” or “This Flight Tonight” wrestle with those decisions, pinned by isolation and regret. But by album's end, Mitchell gives herself the permission she needs, leaving the listener with the canny jabs of “The Last Time I Saw Richard," revelations at the end of a long road: “And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday/Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café." Catching herself in that description, she adds, “I’m gonna blow this damn candle out/I don’t want nobody comin’ over to my table/I got nothing to talk to anybody about.” But her remarkable phrasing, the piercing wistfulness of her voice adrift, tells another story too.
The juggernaut of six Joni albums that followed Blue in the ‘70s not only shaped the entire singer-songwriter genre, but shifted as she slid into fusion and experimental jazz. Five years separate 1971’s Blue from 1976’s Hejira — as significant a leap in an artist's trajectory as the Beatles’ two-year evolution from the more straightforward pop of Help! to the psychedelic expanses of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Redirecting her gaze to herself, Mitchell had free rein to be what she needed to be. In turn, she inspired generations of musicians to do the same; whether you love Brandi Carlile, Prince, Bob Dylan or Björk, all have looked to Mitchell as a guide.
The slow dissolve of Mitchell and Taylor’s relationship is discernible on Blue— the couple appeared on one another’s 1971 albums: Taylor on Blue and Mitchell on Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon (and the pair were also guests on Carole King’s own breakup album, Tapestry; she was recording in the studio next door to Mitchell). But it's not the romantic travails that elevate Blue; it’s Mitchell’s evolving view of herself. Maybe that accounts for the record's longevity and its galvanizing impact on listeners and fellow musicians: it's one woman's evaluation of that elusive answer. Not that Mitchell always enjoyed what she unearthed — but she's gutsy enough to say so.
"By the time of my fourth album [Blue], I came to another turning point – that terrible opportunity that people are given in their lives. The day that they discover to the tips of their toes that they’re a**holes,” she admitted, laughing, to Crowe back in ‘79. “And you have to work on from there. And decide what your values are. Which parts of you are no longer really necessary. They belong to childhood’s end. Blue really was a turning point in a lot of ways. As Court and Spark was a turning point later on. In the state that I was at in my inquiry about life and direction and relationships, I perceived a lot of hate in my heart. You know, ‘I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you some, I love you when I forget about me’ [“All I Want”]. I perceived my inability to love at that point. And it horrified me. It’s something still that I . . . I hate to say I’m working on, because the idea of work implies effort, and effort implies you’ll never get there. But it’s something I’m noticing.”
Few albums ever achieve the universal impact of Blue; Mitchell's songs are music's own moonrise, a balm for both lovers and loners.
Just in time for Joni Mitchell's 77th birthday on November 7, listen to WFUV's "The Joni Project," a brand new hour of exclusive covers of Mitchell's songs by Sarah Jarosz, Courtney Marie Andrews, Son Little, Madison Cunningham, Margo Price, Bailen, The Mountain Goats, Nada Surf's Matthew Caws, Flock of Dimes, and Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith. The special will premiere this Friday, November 6, at 12 noon, EST, on 90.7 WFUV, streaming online, with rebroadcasts on Saturday, November 7, at 3 p.m. and Sunday, November 8, at 8 p.m.
WFUV's EQFM Album ReCue: Joni Mitchell's Blue