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An ode to Joni Mitchell: Blue’s everlasting power, as explained by her musical admirers

·5-min read
Joni Mitchell in London, January 1970 (Getty Images)
Joni Mitchell in London, January 1970 (Getty Images)

“Sometimes,” said Joni Mitchell in a recent interview, looking back on the half-century in which her 1971 album, Blue, has grown to be regarded as one of the finest modern song collections ever written, “I wonder why it got all the attention.”

She was speaking in the context of her other records — the likes of Court and Spark in 1974, or Hejira, two years later — which, while still tapestries of creative brilliance, didn’t quite weave themselves through the fabric of songwriting in the same way Blue has.

Many listeners were similarly bemused when it first arrived. A muted critical reception was mirrored by poor sales, but as hindsight has so often told us, these are often just the early hallmarks of a multi-generational classic: underappreciated initially, adored eventually. And it’s clear to see now, within the incredibly wide sphere of the “singer-songwriter” at least, that Blue was nothing short of foundational.

“This album is a masterpiece, and has set the bar so incredibly high for songwriters everywhere,” says Marika Hackman, the English musician who has previously noted Mitchell as one of her principal influences, and one of the many artists to have covered one of the record’s most enduring tracks, River. “I wonder what today’s musical landscape would sound like if Blue had never been written.”

Incredibly different, no doubt. Prince was a Joni acolyte, first performing his A Case of You cover in 1983 and properly recording it two decades later, and Blue’s ripples can be felt through the work of countless contemporary artists, from Björk and Taylor Swift to James Blake and Laura Marling. To properly quantify its power would be impossible, but you don’t need to dig too deep to find remnants of it.

Perhaps Blue’s most potent revelation was its emotional transparency, its lyrics exposing the types of inner turmoil that might not seem too startling in today’s oversharing world, but at the turn of the Seventies, were staggering to hear on a record. Mitchell describes it best herself through a dream she once had, where she found herself transformed into a “plastic bag with all my organs exposed, sobbing on an auditorium chair”. When writing Blue, “that’s how I felt,” Mitchell added. “Like my guts were on the outside.”

Blue was written at a tender, unsteady time for Mitchell. The fame gathered by her previous three albums was claustrophobic, so she fled for Europe. In the Greek, cave-littered village of Matala, she formed a brief but enlivening bond with an American there, Cary Raditz. Around the same time, she sent a telegram home to break off her relationship with the musician Graham Nash. The note was typically poetic — “If you hold sand too tightly, it will run through your fingers” — but the split was piercing. The love between them had been strong; at one point, Mitchell thought it’d be the last relationship she’d ever have. Later, she’d enter and soon leave an intense union with another musician, James Taylor.

These fluctuations plotted the most profound highs and lows of Blue. Raditz inspired the song Carey, a contented, loving farewell. Memories of Nash echo through the love and loneliness of My Old Man and River. Taylor’s fingerprints are all over the wounded skin of the title track and All I Want.

“The whole record feels as if Mitchell is a tethered skylark being carried and tossed across the breeze, at least for as long as her leash will allow, and then being plunged back into the depths of angst and grief,” says Hackman. “That constant, searching optimism butting alongside heartache is the magic spot where Mitchell’s brutally honest lyrics sit and pull us into her world of blue.”

Mitchell’s voice itself is a metaphor for it all, its unpredictable flights and swooping drops carrying those feelings. It’s also proof of her technical mastery, as the American-Canadian musician Rufus Wainwright says. The songs on Blue “are among the hardest songs I have sung,” says Wainwright, “sparse yet incredibly ornate, simple yet incredibly complex.”

There are similar paradoxes in the lyrics, which are at once hyper-personal and, somehow, universally relatable, the details becoming almost insignificant for the weight of emotion they carry. They’re endlessly fascinating too — in her younger years, Hackman would spend Sunday afternoons “cooking in the kitchen with mum, debating whether drinking a case of someone and still being on your feet was a comment on grounding, unwavering love or a terrible insult for a lack of heady intoxication”.

All the more astounding is how all of this is packed into just 36 perfectly crafted minutes, with not a single note or word wasted. “Blue is one of these albums where every song feels absolutely essential,” says Wainwright. “They are all the knives and tools you need to dissect the body of life.”

The album continues to resonate through today’s music. Birdy, the 25-year-old English singer-songwriter, only discovered Blue around the time she started writing her 2021 album Young Heart. “I’d somehow missed Joni Mitchell growing up but having gone through some recent heartbreak at the time, the album hit me in such a big way, and it was strange to me that I hadn’t realised the beauty and mastery in it before,” she says.

And as Birdy worked through that heartache, pouring it all into her music as Mitchell had done some 50 years earlier, Blue remained a source of strength. “[Mitchell’s] music really made an impact on me and how I approach my own songwriting,” says Birdy. “She writes in such a personal and conversational way, I think it’s made me a bit braver with the stories I tell.”

Maybe Mitchell herself will never entirely get her head around why Blue has become her defining work. But even now, all this time later, there are plenty of people willing to tell her.

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