Six years ago, I was riding in a car with my girlfriend at the time and was struck by the otherworldly voice emanating from her CD player. It seemed simultaneously familiar and beguilingly foreign. It was high and wild and free. I had read enough Mojo to recognize the sound as Joni Mitchell, and was well versed enough in the pop canon to feel guilty for not owning any of her albums. I vowed to rectify my unconscionable ignorance of Mitchell’s oeuvre immediately, but never got around to it. The window of opportunity had passed. The ideal time to get into Mitchell, of course, is when you’re an overly sensitive 14-year-old boy trying to impress a cute girl with your sophisticated taste. But I never got close enough to the oblivious objects of long-range crushes to be in a position to wow them with my nuanced appreciation of Ladies Of The Canyon or Hejira or Blue, the last of which I finally approached for this edition of Better Late Than Never.
As a teenager, I was too in love with the incoherent anger of the Sex Pistols and NWA and the righteous rage of The Coup and The Clash to fall for the idiosyncratic charms of an eccentric Canadian folk singer. It’s not that I was averse to estrogen-rich troubadours. My fiercely feminist older sister dragged me to Ani DiFranco, Dar Williams, and Tori Amos concerts. But God bless her, she just never went through a Joni Mitchell phase. And now her favorite singer is Celine Dion. Ah, but that is a tale for another time and place.
Let’s get back to the subject at hand: that voice. On albums like Ladies Of The Canyon, Mitchell’s voice seems to single-handedly realize the utopian promise of the 1960s counterculture. That voice conjures up a Southern California paradise where the sun is always setting, wine flows freely, drugs bring only joy and love and friendship, and a culture-wide sense of idealism envelops us all. In Mitchell’s early albums, it’s perpetually magic hour among the beautiful people.
Then came Blue. Nobody sang like Mitchell when Blue came out, though her vocal acrobatics have inspired multiple generations of ethereal singers like Regina Spektor and Tori Amos. Her voice is a wildly expressive, virtuoso instrument that swoops, dives, cajoles, flirts, breaks down, and breaks hearts. It’s rooted more in the wild flights of fancy and gutsy improvisation of jazz than the more polite world of folk. Mitchell has never hid her love of jazz; Miles Davis was a key influence, and her albums moved into a much more jazz-focused direction in the mid- and late ’70s. Mitchell even planned to collaborate on an album with jazz great Charles Mingus, though he died early in the process. In homage, Mitchell named the album they would have made together Mingus.
Mitchell’s albums capture something profound and ineffable about a Southern California where a new breed of bohemian artists were casting off their parents’ shackles and outdated attitudes, and finding potent new ways to hurt each other. Mitchell’s generation didn’t want to make the mistakes their parents did, so they made a completely different set of mistakes.
There’s an awful lot of hurt in Blue. If I had to summarize the album in a single word, it would be “Fergilicious.” If I had to summarize it in two words, however, those two words would be “beautiful pain.” In a 1979 Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe, Mitchell said of Blue:
There’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.
Like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, The Eels’ Electro-Shock Blues, and Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, Blue captures the essence of depression on a sonic level. Blue understands the complexity of depression, of heartbreak, the way melancholy manifests in myriad shades of grey and blue, not just the extremity of pure black.
Mitchell is keenly attuned to the interconnectedness of joy and despair. She realizes that there would be no heartbreak without the exhilaration of fresh love. On the album’s first song, “All I Want,” she doesn’t even attempt to separate love from hate, or pleasure from pain. Over Indian-influenced percussion, she sings “I hate you some, I hate you some, I love you some / I love you when I forget about me.” Later come the key lines of the song, and perhaps the album as a whole: “Do you see, do you see, do you see / How you hurt me baby / So I hurt you too / Then we both get so blue.”
Love is pain. Heartbreak is the price we pay for the ecstasy of sex, true love, and profound spiritual connections. “All I Want” is sad, silly, playful, and profound. It’s everything all at once. As the Rolling Stone quote above attests, Mitchell was in an intense state of mind when she recorded Blue. She was recovering from a traumatic break-up with Graham Nash, and felt everything deeply. Depression gave her the gift of total emotional transparency. She held nothing back.
The word “blue” reappears throughout Blue so often, it becomes the album’s dominant motif. Without true love, there can be no true heartbreak. “My Old Man” is a love song of disarming tenderness to a man who is “my sunshine, he’s my fireworks at the end of the day.” Here, love and a passionate embrace of living are the only antidotes to the creeping fog of depression.
Mitchell has ample reasons to feel blue besides her break-up with Nash. During her first marriage, she had a child she gave up for adoption, which informs “Little Green.” The song’s autobiographical element makes lines like “There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes / and sometimes there’ll be sorrow” even more emotionally shattering.
On “Little Green,” the music matches the melancholy of Mitchell’s lyrics and vocals. It’s almost unbearably sad. I feared I might sink into an ennui-induced coma, so thank God she follows it up with “Carey,” an upbeat pop song whose riotous embrace of life, of French perfume, fine wine, clean linens, and a “mean old daddy” Mitchell can’t help but like, proves infectious. “Carey” serves as a potent reminder that the world entails more than heartbreak and sadness, even if each new infatuation marks the beginning of a cycle that will end in soul-shattering disillusion.
Then it’s back to the spare piano-based confession of the title track before we return to the land of the living with “California.” Like the rest of the album, the song chronicles the growing pains of a generation intent on reinventing the world in its image, but stumbling to define itself and its values. Mitchell may not need a “piece of paper from the City Hall” to prove her love for “My Old Man,” but giving up a child invariably hurts, no matter how practical the decision might be, and on “California,” Mitchell notes, with more bemusement than sadness, that the whole bit about giving “peace a chance” amounted to little more than “just a dream some of us had.” The flower children went to bed dreaming of a New Eden, and woke up to Nixon and Agnew.
“Will you take me as I am, strung out on another man?” Mitchell asks with increasing urgency and painful intimacy toward the end of “California.” The world is full of wonders, but nothing can compare to the comfort and security of home. Mitchell writes with equal parts clear-eyed candor and loopy lyricism. Blue feels like diary entries transformed into poetry through Mitchell’s genius.
Blue saves its saddest song for last. “The Last Time I Saw Richard” is a mournful, contemplative piano ballad about a man who personifies the lost promise of the late ’60s. It has the sense of time and place of a great short story. The song, and the album as a whole, represents a battle between the forces of hope and despair, between the joy of being alive and the pain of losing what you hold dearest. The Richard of the title—probably Mitchell’s first husband—tells Joni, “All romantics meet the same fate, someday cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café.” He accuses her of having the moon in her eyes. She counters that he has tombs in his eyes, but “the songs you punched [in the jukebox] are dreaming / listen, they sing of love so sweet.”
Mitchell finds escape from the bleary cynicism of a world both cruel and kind in music, in poetry, in getting lost in words, ideas, and melodies. Blue ends as it must, with Mitchell contemplating a sad world of lost dreamers in dark cafes before envisioning herself emerging from the dark cocoon of depression and getting her “gorgeous wings” to “fly away.” Mitchell sees the purity and necessity of despair, and she finds hope in the transformative powers of beauty, love, art, and human connection, however fragile and delicate they might be.
If Mitchell were only a singer, she’d be a giant. If she were only a pianist, she’d be a legend. If all she ever did was play guitar, she’d be an all-time great. If she only wrote songs that other people sang, her place in pop-music history would be secure. But she did it all, and did it better than just about anyone who had ever come before or since. She was and is that rarest of creatures: an original.
Blue is an unimpeachable masterpiece, but it’s also exhausting and demanding. You have to be in the right mood for its exquisite melancholy or its shattering, live-wire intensity can prove overwhelming. Nevertheless I’m glad I finally got around to listening to Blue. I plan to listen to it every time I need my heart broken anew.