Happy 50th Anniversary to Joni Mitchell's fourth studio album Blue, originally released June 22, 1971.
"Our House," Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's idyllic 1970 hit about the "very, very, very fine house" is sunshine made audible. It's the fantasy everyone wants to live in. Now take that perfect image - with the flowers and the fireside love songs and two cats in the yard - and just crush it. Destroy it all. The "life used to be so hard / now everything is easy 'cause of you" part? Turn it inside out. Bleach it. Set it on fire.
Imagine the despair in watching the incineration, gazing upon the wreckage, trying to understand what happened. English musician Graham Nash wrote "Our House" about the Laurel Canyon home where he lived with Joni Mitchell. But in the end, detritus from the dissolution of their two-year relationship formed the nucleus of what would become Mitchell's Blue, the heavyweight champion of all heartbreak albums.
"Just before our love got lost, you said / 'I am as constant as a Northern star' / And I said, 'Constantly in the darkness! / Where's that at?' / If you want me, I'll be in the bar." Upon hearing this start to "A Case of You," it became a life goal to someday deal out a rejoinder this sharp, then go sip a drink insouciantly, leaving an ex leveled in my wake.
Though mourning a felled engagement here, the clarity of her soprano is glorious. She postures it like a woodwind instrument singing a soulful, ascending melisma over its second chorus ("You taste so bitter and so sweet / Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling / And I would still be on my feet"). The way the song encapsulates the familiar strangeness of reaching for what you revile is part of what makes Blue so endearing.
Specifically, for some people, love is easy. (And God bless them. I can't stand those people.) For everyone else, when it comes to matters of the heart, we're half-afraid of drowning in solitude and half-afraid we might someday be starved for it. It's hard for connection to flourish while sandwiched between those fears. Listening to Blue, you get the impression Joni Mitchell understands this conundrum and its resultant sadness.
One way Mitchell stopped her sadness was to board a plane to Greece where, at least temporarily, neither celebrity nor grief could find her. While there, she wrote several songs for Blue on an Appalachian dulcimer. One of those concerned a freewheeling redhead named Cary Raditz from North Carolina who helped her forget her troubles while vacationing in Matala, Crete. She mistakenly titled it "Carey," not remembering the proper spelling of his name. Errant vowel notwithstanding, Reprise Records pressed it as the LP's first single.
When asked whether this was a farewell, the namesake Raditz shared, "Joni was leaving all the time. She was always saying she was going to take off soon, so her intentions were clear." The next single "California" was about her following through, exactly as she promised ("I met a redneck on a Grecian isle / Who did the goat dance very well / He gave me back my smile... / I might have stayed on with him there / But my heart cried out for you, California / Oh, California, I'm coming home").
The tendency to push toward attachment then retreat from it proved a flaw for Mitchell, but a fixture on Blue. She lassos that familiar ambivalence into "All I Want" ("I hate you some / I hate you some / I love you some"). Mitchell's delivery here is winsome and charming. She lingers wantonly on "I wanna make you feel better / I wanna make you feel... / free." While Nash may have inspired this, perhaps it was another sideman who caught her eye: James Taylor.
Taylor played guitar on "All I Want," "California" and "A Case of You." As Mitchell recorded Blue, an intense romance flashed between them, but it too would prove ephemeral and add to her pain. By the album's release, Taylor had moved on to wooing Carly Simon. During this vulnerable period, Mitchell was an open book, talking freely to the media.
"My individual psychological descent coincided ironically with my ascent into the public eye," Mitchell explains in the documentary Woman of Heart and Mind. "They were putting me on a pedestal and I was wobbling. So, I took it upon myself that since I was a public voice and was subject to this kind of weird worship, that they should know who they were worshipping."
This and the bare-all content of Blue gained Mitchell a reputation for being "confessional." Though she came to abhor this descriptor, "Little Green" does little to disprove its appropriateness. The candid and quiet number broaches the topic of Mitchell's secret daughter given up for adoption in 1965. She was too poor to care for the child ("You sign all the papers in the family name / You are sad and you're sorry but you're not ashamed").
The gawking at her emotional life was beginning to obscure her identity as a musician. Less attention was paid to her trademark alternate tunings of stringed instruments. This created what she termed "chords of inquisition." Some of these appear on the "Carey" B-side "This Flight Tonight." Scottish rock band Nazareth's cover eclipsed the original in the UK to the extent that Mitchell performed it prefacing, "I'd like to open with a Nazareth song!"
Humor notwithstanding, it was no small feat that Mitchell wrote and produced Blue by herself. The music industry is traditionally loath to put women in control of their sound and image, but Mitchell was very much in control. The delicate Blue required it. Otherwise, one gets the fallacious idea Mitchell is a victim, a shrinking violet, a blonde princess who exists to sing for you and look pretty.
Recall the idyllic scene destroyed in the first paragraph? I neglected to mention it was Mitchell who destroyed it. She felt trapped in her first marriage, so when Nash asked to marry her - which Mitchell initially agreed to - it reawakened the fear of what she was possibly giving up. As a child, she saw her grandmother's frustration with being a housewife and domestic afterthought. She couldn't bear to repeat the cycle.
Nash left his then-wife to be with Mitchell. They were deeply enamored of each other, but she broke off the relationship by sending Nash a telegram from Greece that closed with, "If you hold sand too tightly in your hand, it will run through your fingers."
I again find myself impressed by her ability to burn someone with her cigarette and walk away coolly. In this case, however, the smoke would follow her. Her regrets surface spectacularly on Blue's most recognizable icon "River" ("I'm so hard to handle / I'm selfish and I'm sad / Now I've gone and lost the best baby / That I ever had").
Despite the forlorn "Jingle Bells" motif that opens and closes the piano ballad, it has little to do with Christmas. Wintry and elegiac, "River" has become an unofficial holiday standard, beloved in her canon. It's been featured in TV and movies, and covered by over 100 artists across genres, without ever being promoted as a single.
Applying today's metrics, one might dare call Blue a "flop." Of its two 45rpm releases, "Carey" spent one week on the US Billboard 100, peaking at #93 where "California" failed to chart at all. Yet the eventually-platinum disc reached #15 on the US Billboard 200 and #3 on the UK Albums chart. How did it gain relevance without commercial heft? And why would anyone gravitate toward what is essentially a downer?
When Mitchell wrote "there's comfort in melancholy" into "Hejira," no one who's enjoyed Blue could disagree. The record is a virtual laboratory for uncovering the joy sometimes hidden in sorrow. Mitchell confirmed this in March 2000: "The light without the dark and even negative situations, are not as valuable. And great beauty can come out of the negative. If you go through a bad space in your life and you're able to turn it into something - that's a wonderful thrill."
There it is. There is a cathartic thrill in plumbing these depths, sorting through the unpleasantness, compacting it, and emerging lighter. And if you wonder what became of Mitchell and Nash, they didn't destroy everything. In fact, Nash returned to play harmonica on Mitchell's next effort For The Roses (1972). They've remained friends, collaborating on each other's records since.
After 50 years, Blue has lived many lives. Some love it because they're Joni fans and nothing in her oeuvre is without a baseline of genius and intention. For some, it's a time capsule allowing passage to revisit cultural moments they remember fondly. Others survived a harrowing drama and Blue was their soundtrack.
It's ironic how an exploration of loneliness and disappointment fostered community among those who have done the same. Mitchell only meant to take her personal darkness and forge something bright from it. In hindsight, she has forged something bright for us all. That is the mark of great art - and possibly the most wonderful thrill.
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Added to Library on June 21, 2021. (1948)
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