The Legacy of Joni Mitchell’s Blue


Revisiting Blue only proves that the album—Joni Mitchell’s most famous despite being the fourth studio album in her discography—has become better with time. Forty-seven years later it’s not out of line to say its singular take on the universal emotions surrounding heartache has become a genre-redefining masterpiece. In fact, in 2017 Blue topped NPR’s list of “The 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women.”

Today, artists folk-leaning artists such as Laura Marling, Neko Case, and Feist stand in Mitchell’s formidable shadow. Blue has reached such reached such an iconic status that musicians across the genre spectrum, including Cat Power, Sarah McLachlan, James Blake have put their stamp on cover versions. But then, the 28-year-old singer/songwriter stood alone, although at the time of recording she had earned enough creative capital to earn assists from some of the most iconic talent of the time, including Stephen Stills (of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and James Taylor. The album sings with their contributions, and Mitchell’s own guitar and dulcimer playing. But it’s Mitchell’s acrobatic falsetto, beholden to no one’s folk standards, that seems aimed directly at the listener’s emotional core. (Later, Mitchell’s collaborations with Herbie Hancock shed more light on how jazz inspired her sound.)

Both a shuffling travel log, and a breakup postscript, Blue remains extraordinary for the sheer level of emotion—both epic and ordinary—displayed across its ten tracks. Mitchell’s talent for storytelling allows her to mine the very nature of love (“Love is touching souls/Surely you touched mine ’cause/Part of you pours out of me/In these lines from time to time” as she sings in “Case of You”) and still poke fun at herself in the process (“I met a redneck on a Grecian isle/Who did the goat dance very well/He gave me back my smile/But he kept my camera to sell” from “California”).

Since Blue’s release, music scholars have dissected the time and place to determine what relationships Mitchell was specifically singing about in each song. Written in the wake of her breakup with Graham Nash and a vacation to Europe, tracks like “My Old Man” are easy to pinpoint. But other songs on the album have been carbon-dated to Leonard Cohen and a nameless bartender. However, framing Blue as anything other than an artist-centric album would be a disservice to the strength of Mitchell’s work. (Besides, one magazine already did it the year it was released, calling her “Old Lady of the Year,” a slut-slamming reference to her high-profile relationships.) The truth is we don’t need to know who she’s directly addressing. In a way, it’s anyone attempting to dodge and weave their way out of a broken heart.

The details of Mitchell’s specific heartache (or heartaches) are personal, like on “River,” where, she declares against opening notes pinched from “Jingle-Bells” that, “I’m so hard to handle/I’m selfish and I’m sad,” delivered with a passion familiar to anyone who’s blamed their shortcomings for the end of a relationship. She’s also haunted by the world that carries on in the face of her loneliness, the subject of “My Old Man,” where she laments the suddenly too big bed and frying pan, too wide for one. But lines that read as navel-gazing in the hands of a lesser artist are pragmatically painted into larger picture, as Mitchell mulls over her legacy in “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” recounting the gallows humor advice she received that “All romantics meet the same fate someday/Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café.”

But not all romantics sink into banal obscurity, and sometimes the most sentiment-drenched albums find their place in the musical canon, particularly with critical success and, in 1999, a Grammy Hall of Fame take home to their name. In Blue, Mitchell created the perfect emotional mirror, and invited us all to have a look. Five decades later, we still see ourselves in the reflection.


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