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Joni Mitchell's Blue Released 40 Years Ago   Print

by Steve Holtje
CultureCatch
June 18, 2011

Joni Mitchell was the most iconic female of the 1970s West Coast singer-songwriter scene, and no album more perfectly epitomizes that first phase of her career than 1971's critically acclaimed Blue. In 1970, Mitchell's career had taken off: she won a Grammy for her second album, Clouds; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had a hit single with her song "Woodstock"; and her third LP, Ladies of the Canyon, was released and became her first album to "go gold" (reach 500,000 in sales). Surprisingly, instead of touring constantly to push the album, she retreated from the stage to travel and write.

She also went through the breakup of her romantic relationship with Graham Nash, which, whether or not it inspired the songs' lyrics, seems likely to have influenced the subdued, introspective mood that characterizes the album. The David Crosby-produced Ladies of the Canyon had incorporated pop/rock arrangements and production, and afterBlue, Mitchell moved into more pop-oriented -- and sometimes jazz-influenced -- production, and had hit singles, but on Blue (released on June 22, 1971), all 10 tracks have spare instrumentation, and half are just Mitchell singing and playing either piano ("My Old Man," "Blue," "River," "The Last Time I Saw Richard") or acoustic guitar ("Little Green").

For some listeners, Mitchell's singing on earlier efforts had sometimes seemed affected or precious. By this point, she was singing more naturally, though she was still unafraid of switching dramatically into a high head tone and remained utterly distinctive. Given the so-called confessional lyrics -- full of intimate details, often cleverly couched, and assumed to have been drawn from her own life -- both the more casual vocals and the stripped-down arrangements fit perfectly. For variety, there are some guest appearances, sometimes from men she was connected with romantically (Stephen Stills, James Taylor), along with the colorful pedal steel of Sneaky Pete Kleinow on "California" and "This Flight Tonight" and the understated drumming of Russ Kunkel on "California," Carey," and "A Case of You."

Ultimately, though, it's Mitchell's stories and ruminations that make this album timeless. On the title track, she muses, "You've got to keep thinking you can make it thru these waves / Acid, booze, and ass, needles, guns, and grass, lots of laughs, lots of laughs / Everybody's saying that hell's the hippest way to go / Well I don't think so, but I'm gonna take a look around it though." She laments, "You got the touch so gentle and sweet / But you've got that look so critical / Now I can't talk to you baby, I get so weak / Sometimes I think love is just mythical" on "This Flight Tonight." On "The Last Time I Saw Richard" she deftly summarizes the life of, one assumes, an ex-lover: "Richard got married to a figure skater / And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator / And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on / And all the house lights left up bright."

There have been few female pop musicians of the past 40 years more influential than Joni Mitchell. Subsequent stars influenced by her include Jackson Browne, Carly Simon, Rickie Lee Jones, Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Shawn Colvin, Joan Armatrading, Suzanne Vega, Jane Siberry, Liz Phair, Prince, Ani DiFranco, Fiona Apple, and many more. Probably all of the above are deeply familiar with Blue. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer whose newest project is setting James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach for singer and cello.

 

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