Blue (as part of the Reprise Albums 1968 - 1971 box set).
Ten short stories. One narrator.
You can trace the narrative arc throughout these tales. When we meet the storyteller, she is feeling lonely, despite her (physically) present partner. Later, when we bid her goodbye she, very firmly, wants to be left alone. Between these two points, the storyteller will encounter a cast of characters in some far-flung locations (Paris, California, a Grecian isle, Detroit...) and the ensuing tales will become some of the most honest, poignant and piercing songwriting ever written or performed.
This is 'Blue' by Joni Mitchell. A record that, although it is currently celebrating its fiftieth anniversary is, like the best art, ageless, it never sounds dated or linked to a particular scene or moment in time. This longevity doesn't happen very often in the world of popular music.
It's low light sleeve is the first indication that 'Blue' is something out of the ordinary (reminiscent of Billie Holiday's 'Body and Soul' or Frank Sinatra's 'Only the Lonely'), it could be from any era.
And it's the intimacy of the music that first hits you. We start with just one voice and a dulcimer. On 'All I Want' Joni tumbles through the turbulence of being in love but of wanting to be free. Of needing more and of needing less. In many ways, it sets the stage for all that will follow.
In the numerous articles about 'Blue' published in recent weeks, there has been so much attention on whichever situation, relationship or location inspired which particular song. It's all very entertaining, but it somehow misses the point. It's not the backstory that makes 'Blue' so remarkable, it is all that is relatable in these tales, they are so easy to connect with.
The aching 'Little Green' may be about a very specific incident (Mitchell gave up her baby daughter when she was poor and estranged from her partner in the mid-sixties - this wasn't revealed until many years later), but the tender and pure vocals and most gentle guitar reveal it as a song of remorse, regret and trying to rationalize a decision.
You've been there too, haven't you?
And, whilst we're discussing universal topics, you don't have to be in the music industry to frequently feel that you 'wanna make a lot of money and then quit this crazy scene' ('River'). We all frequently need to skate away from it all, don't we?
My favourite line (on my favourite song on my favourite album) appears towards the end of closer 'The Last Time I Saw Richard.' Weary and jaded, she stingingly reflects on the fate of a once romantic friend:
“Richard got married to a figure skater, and he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator …”
And thus, we end 'Blue' as we start, with the reality versus the ideal and the immense gulf in-between. But, as Joni cries along to the sympathetic piano, it's a deeper, darker shade of blue.
To coincide with the anniversary, 'Blue' is being reissued alongside Joni's first three albums in a lovingly assembled box set (The Reprise Albums 1968 - 1971). But, I won't be the only person who will move directly to her fourth and most famous work.
Happy anniversary 'Blue'.
Jay Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jay's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.
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