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Barney Hoskyns on Blue – track by track Print-ready version

by Barney Hoskyns
The Times
June 26, 2021
Original article: PDF

All I Want

For the rapturous words bestowed on Blue, it's rarely remarked that it starts with two bars of uncomfortable dissonance: Mitchell's strummed dulcimer chords grating against an underlying drone. Then come the first words, "I am on a lonely road and I am travelling...", followed swiftly by "I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you..." She's 27 and grappling with the agonies of intimacy and jealousy that tripped up so many of her contemporaries at that age. It's almost unbearable honest about the push-and-pull of romance - rehearsing what she really wants to tell her new beau, James Taylor, trying to grow up in ways few of use ever manage.

My Old Man

The son's opening piano phrases, at once relaxed and hinting at sadness, offer instant contrast to All I Want. Written towards the end of Mitchell's canyon cohabitation with Graham Nash, My Old Man is sweetly tender and seemingly carefree, at least until the first not of worry ("play and stay, baby") and the dip into the "lonesome blues" that sit at the core of her being. The domestic details (the bed, the frying pan) are a huge part of what make Blue so piercingly real, while her voice leaps from a conversational alto to an aching falsetto soprano that, in its way, is Mitchell's attempt to escape those Blues.

Little Green

The only song on Blue that would have fitted on her early, folkier albums, Little Green was written in 1967, two years after Mitchell (a "child with a child pretending") had given up a baby daughter for adoption. Its inclusion here suggests she could no longer disown the guilt and grief she had carried after making the hard choice between motherhood and freedom in mid-1960s Canada. The picked guitar phrase recalls The Circle Game but is clearly more personal - even if you don't know what it's about. Wishing her daughter a "happy ending", Mitchell couldn't have known she'd be reunited with Kilauren in 1997.

Carey

This track, one of Blue's signature songs, returns us to the dulcimer strumming All I Want and is Mitchell's most vivid report from the peripatetic "time-out" year of 1970. Unable to any longer resist the lure of "clean white linen" and "fancy French cologne, she bids a whimsical farewell to lover Cary Raditz, a "bright red devil" with a walking cane, and to her months of slumming it as a hippy in a Cretan cave. It's the first three tracks of Blue that are lightly infused by rock'n'roll, even if you can barely make out the drummer Russ Kinkel. Raditz later became an investment analyst.

Blue

The albums exquisite title song - as coolly melancholic as Miles Davis's Kind of Blue - follows Carey in the way that My Old Man follows All I Want. It's Mitchell alone over troubled piano chords that combine the styles of Laura Nyro (one of Mitchell's few acknowledged peers) and Jimmy Webb (one of her new LA friends). It also brings us squarely back to America and the post-hippy unease of the new decade, as well as to her doomed and consuming affair with the heroin-addicted Taylor: "Acid, booze and ass/Needles, guns and grass..." Rufus Wainwright, who sang it for Mitchell at her 75th birthday party, said it was "nice to sing something from the perspective of the person living with the addict."

California

Another of Blue's postcards from Old Europe, California gives use Mitchell in Paris, en route home via Formentera (from which she sent Nash a telegram telling him their relationship was over). She's checking the latest news on America's fruitless war in Vietnam and letting go of the Sixties dream of peace. She's strumming her dulcimer again, backed by Taylor and the Flying Burritos' pedal-steel player Sneaky Pete Kleinow, dreaming anew of Laurel Canyon. (She says she'll even kiss a cop on Sunset Boulevard.) California remains a beckoning, beguiling paradise for this restless Canadian.

The Flight Tonight

Blusteringly covered by the Scottish rockers Nazareth, who had an unlikely hit with it, Flight supposedly tells the tale of Mitchell's abrupt and impulsive return to LA as she was about to be introduced to Taylor's east coast family. Spooked by "that look so critical" in his eyes, she plunged into "blackness, blackness dragging me down" as she stares through the plane's porthole window at night-time America below. An acoustic strummer in her Big Yellow Taxi mode, the song conveys the full obsession of her feelings for the rising male start of mellow Seventies sensitivity.

River

All of Mitchell's social and romantic angst can be heard in this song of longing and escape or avoidance. River jumps from the longing for a Canadian Christmas - its piano intro mimicking Jingle Bells - to bitter guild at pushing ex-boyfriend Nash away. "I'm so hard to handle," she sings with stark self- awareness, "I'm selfish and I'm sad/Now I've gone and lost the best baby that I ever had." The willingness to be direct and transparent about exactly who she is ("I'm gonna make a lot of money, then I'm gonna quit this crazy scene" was shocking to her Canyon contemporaries... but then so was her delight at being loved "so naughty" by Salford's Nash.

A Case of You

Blue's most beloved song is a touchstone of the singer-songwriter moment, a confession of the pain of intimate attachment and the perils of being helplessly drawn to "those ones that ain't afraid." Echoes of Leonard Cohen, another former lover of Mitchell's , are implicit in the song's central metaphor, particularly the line about being "in my blood like holy wine." This is Mitchell at her most desolately solitary, a "lonely painter" in "a box of pains," striving to convince herself that Taylor has touched her soul - and she his.

The Last Time I Saw Richard

Back at the grand piano in A&M's Studio C, Mitchell recalls her old folkie friend Patrick Sky (who died just a month ago). "Richard" himself was settled into a humdrum bourgeois life of TV and dishwashers, leaving Mitchell alone in a dark café ("I don't want nobody coming over to my table"). But the café turns out to be "only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly..." One might say that Blue is itself that dark cocoon.

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Added to Library on July 25, 2021. (289)

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