Great albums that have fallen off the critical radar
Blue by Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell fans know that she recorded 1971's "Blue", her fourth album, in an "emotionally transparent" state, after her relationship with Graham Nash fell apart. The couple, who were introduced by David Crosby, enjoyed a joyous love affair, Joni moving out to California from her native Canada to live with Nash in Laurel Canyon. But by the time Crasby, Stills, Nash and Young started work on "Deja Vu" in 1969, the relationship was on the rocks. When the inevitable break up came, 27 year old Joni poured her heartache into "Blue", writing bleak sketches for acoustic guitar and piano (for the Nash take, listen to "I Used To Be King" and "Simple Man" from his 1971 album "For Beginners"). What scant accompaniment there is comes from Stephen Stills, James Taylor, (by this time Joni's new lover), Pete Kleinow, and Russ Kunkel. But the music is always secondary to her voice, which whoops and leaps, and flies, and soars, and warbles, and takes all kinds of improbable jazzy detours. As with many singer songwriters, the music is an exercise in mood, a scene-setting device, a framework for poetry and voice.
Although Blue has similarities with the product of other female singer songwriters like Laura Nyro, Carole King and Judy Collins, it exists in its own bleak universe, a snapshot of one woman's life as her soul makes a journey from chronic unhappiness to personal rebirth. Like Big Star's "Sister Lovers, The Replacement's "All shook Down", John Cale's "Music For A New Society", or Lou Reed's "Berlin", "Blue" is a once in a lifetime record, the kind of album that no artists ever makes twice, nor could be expected to. With every line of "Blue", Joni gives her all, the songs exuding a weird, vital energy, the album an exorcism, a bilious venting, the sound of someone writing themselves better.
The album opens with "All I Want", gentle brushes of acoustic guitar that were almost recreated note-perfect by Mark Eitzel (a huge Joni Fan) for the intro to the American Music Club track "Ive Been A Mess". The lyrics are phrased, paced and rhymed with a poets ear and often most beautiful when she makes them sound throwaway ("Oh I love you when I forget about me" and "Do you see how you hurt me baby/so i hurt you too").
Next up is "My Old Man" on which Joni sings about Nash: "My old man, he's a walker in the rain/he's a dancer in the dark". She sings of love between two musicians: "He's the warmest chord I ever heard/Play that warm chord and stay". But then he's gone and she's lonely: "the bed's too big/the frying pan's too wide". Time and time again on this album she tosses off the beautiful, offbeat Raymond Carver-style snapshots of love on the rocks. "Little Green" surfs a brittle, picked, guitar motif as vulnerable as the woman singing over it, and is said to be about the child Joni gave up for adoption when she was young (not that anyone knew this at the time of the album's release). The acoustic shuffle of "Carey" returns us to the pop terrain of "Big Yellow Taxi" the song which helped Joni's third album "Ladies of the Canyon" sell half a million copies.
Track five, the very Laura Nyro-Carole King sounding jazzy piano ballad "Blue" is rumoured to have been written as a thank you letter to James Taylor for pulling her from her despair. It also seems to be a warning to "Blue" not to fall prey to the way their peers are living: "You can make it through these waves/Acid, Booze and Ass/Needles guns and Grass/lots of laughs" Overall its got the bruised feel of a Billie Holiday classic. After that things go jaunty-ditty with travelogue ditty "California" (she went travelling in 1970 to escape her newfound fame), the dancing guitar, washes of pedal steel and pretty lyric reminiscent of modern day Joni fans Counting Crows who recently covered "Big Yellow Taxi". The rumoured move from Nash to Taylor is coyly hinted at when she sings: "California coming home/ Oh will ypu take me as I am / Strung out on another man".
In the dark James Taylor strums of "This Flight Tonight", we can hear Mark Kozelek's work with Red House Painters, as well as countless songs penned and sung by Natalie Merchant. It's a great flying metaphor of a song, Joni comparing circling to land at night with a spiralling love affair. "Blackness, blackness dragging me down / Come on light the candle in this poor heart of mine". The saddest and best song on the album, "River" opens with the tinkle of "Jingle Bells" (something Lisa Germano lifted for her "Excerpts From a Love Circus" album) and chronicles a lonely festive epriod: "Its coming on Christmas....I Wish I Had a River, I Could Skate Away On".
"River" blends into "A Case of You", the same broken love affair under the microscope, with an opening guitar figure that was later likely appropriated by Annie Lennox on "Why?" The album closes with a piano ballad "The Last Time I Saw Richard", a goodby to her old life singing in folk clubs, and a failed marriage in Canada. And then its over, this painfull 36 minute confession, this open house with Joni's diaries from 1969 - 1970. Such honesty makes this an album to treasure. It's difficult listening. Like all her work is. But it's that rare thing, and album that speaks to you the way only a lover can.