Some records are so inherently brilliant that it becomes difficult to even explain why. Such is the case with Joni Mitchell’s Blue, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. The early 1970s was a golden era for singer-songwriters, but this stands alongside the very best. The beauty of Mitchell’s songwriting lies in its sheer simplicity. Arrangements are sparse, with often just a lone guitar or piano accompanying the sublime vocal performances. Blue is a confessional album, travelling through multitudes of grief, but these reflections can sometimes lead to clumsy lyrical moments. This is the only element of the record that hasn’t aged elegantly. The songwriting itself is as good as it gets.
Blue remains a marvellous and universally adored album, but it’s also a fascinating piece of history. It was written and released towards the end of the Vietnam War, and the folk scene was firmly rooted in the protests. At the beginning of “California” Mitchell laments that ‘they won’t give peace a chance, that was just a dream some of us had.’ On the title track she references the hippy lifestyle she found herself in: ‘acid, booze and ass/needles, guns and grass/lots of laughs, lots of laughs.’ It feels like an inner conflict for Mitchell. She knows there’s more to life, but - during one of the most agonising wars in modern history - she is, at the very least, laughing. This is more than can be said for many others.
A musical and cultural milestone, Blue has proved to be one of the most influential records in the widespread fields of folk. As someone who was enamoured with the music of Laura Marling before listening to Mitchell, it’s astonishing to hear how much of an impact a song like “Little Green” made, its force clearly felt on an album like Semper Femina, which also shares the same spirit of the feminist movement. There isn’t a single track on Blue that isn’t a joy to listen to. It’s one of the purest instances of songwriting I’ve ever experienced. Half a century on from its release, Blue remains a stone cold classic.
9 out of 10
I could drink a case of Blue (hoooooooooooooo). The record flows like nectar, cool and smooth and bittersweet. We’ve listened to our fair share of singer-songwriters over the years and not one of them holds court quite like Joni Mitchell does. She’s so good you almost wonder why anyone else bothers.
9 out of 10
It’s almost trite to shower praise on Blue, but that’s all I can do. Joni Mitchell’s fourth album is raw, sentimental, and minimal, her composition and performance so exposed that flaws have nowhere to hide.
Mitchell’s instrumentals are alluring, if for no other reason than their unconventional nature. Leaving rockers and jazzists alike scratching their heads, much of Blue throws out the rule book, often leaving chords unresolved and suspended, with twisting progressions in unexpected directions. Mitchell describes chords as ‘colours that depict the current state of your emotionality’, and in Blue the music reflects the unresolved parts of her life. From the title track to the very final moments of the album, Mitchell takes listeners to emotional clifftops and down winding paths, her voice cutting through the single-instrument arrangements.
Vocals on Blue are just as distinctive and iconic. Swooping into the clouds in “River”, her voice is delicate and intimate in one moment, ethereal at the next. “A Case of You” reverberates out over the dulcimer, forming a poetic, honest reflection of a deep, soulful bond.
To pick the tracklist apart for favourites is tough, but the five minutes made up by “California” and “This Flight Tonight” create a beautiful set of vignettes filled with internal indecision and emotion, backed by lighter, breezier, country-infused instrumentals. Elsewhere, the likes of “Little Green” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard” are both filled with uncertainty and desperation, the lyrics and instrumentals whipping the listener up in the emotions involved.
With Blue Joni Mitchell has quelled angry crowds and spawned an accidental Christmas classic. In the years since its release the record has inspired musos and musicians alike. This is still timeless music, and has been a joy to dig into. In my eyes it is essential listening.
10 out of 10