As Joni Mitchell’s esteemed album Blue celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, we explore how its angst and emotion feels just as raw and real in 2021 as it did in 1971.
Joni Mitchell was one of the first female songwriters of her time to wring out her inner emotions and hang them out for all the world to see; surrounding them with soul-stirring and experimental melodies in the process.
Nowhere is Mitchell more tender and vulnerable than on her fourth album Blue, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. The 10-track masterpiece, which includes A Case of You, River and California, is a gut-wrenching journey into the depths of Mitchell’s twenty-something soul.
When it was first released on 22 June 1971, it put Mitchell on the path to becoming one of the most significant musicians of her generation. Over the decades, the emotional sparks it ignited on its release have continued to glow – it’s now considered one of the greatest albums ever made, hovering near the top of Rolling Stone’s and Pitchfork’s best albums of all time lists.
One of the women wrapped up in Mitchell’s urgent emotional outpourings in 1971, was my then 19-year-old mum. She would often recount nights in her teenage bedroom letting the record play over and over again into the early hours of the morning and scrawling down lyrics in the margins of her workbooks.
It was music she carried with her throughout her life and it became the soundtrack to my childhood. I’m hard-pressed to remember a Sunday morning when coos of, “Carey, get out your cane”, didn’t ring out in our kitchen, or an evening when Mitchell’s mournful cry of, “You’re in my blood like holy wine”, wasn’t echoing through my mum’s bedroom door.
In a sort of generational déjà vu, it wasn’t until my mum died when I was 19 myself, that I really began to listen to Blue with the same emotional connection she had. I remember finding the record sleeve – dog-eared and stained with Mitchell’s ghostly white face looming from a midnight blue background – as I sorted through my mum’s things in the weeks after her funeral. I put it straight onto her record player and cried in thick sobs as Mitchell’s spidery voice rang out and surrounded me like an old friend.
Since then, Blue has become my constant companion. It’s a pillar of comfort I’ve leaned on to navigate break-ups, aimlessness and grief. When I came out of my first long term relationship, I played A Case of You on repeat for weeks, the line: “Stay with him if you can/But be prepared to bleed”, reminding me I wasn’t the first, nor would I be the last, to feel the crush of heartbreak.
All I Want’s lyrics: “I am on a lonely road […] Looking for something, what can it be?” has reassured me when I’ve felt lost and scared of life’s unknowns. The beautifully forlorn Christmas song, River, with its poignant reconfiguration of Jingle Bells has been a support during the messy, pained nostalgia that usually bubbles up over the holidays when the people you love the most aren’t around anymore to share it with you.
The album’s also been a connecting thread that’s helped cement some of my closest friendships and a soundtrack to evenings full of laughter – I’ve spilt wine over myself more than once dancing to the jangly strumming of Carey.
It’s no surprise that listening to Blue is a magical, dizzying experience, full of cathartic tears and hysterical joys. Often described as a break-up record, Mitchell wrote it just after splitting up with musician Graham Nash and during an intense, turbulent relationship with guitarist James Taylor. Her travels around Europe in 1970, when she took a short break from music, frame lots of the songs, while the haunting, delicate track Little Green is dedicated to her daughter that she gave up for adoption.
Mitchell might have experienced these things half a century ago, but, just like breaking open a weathered rock to reveal a perfectly intact fossil, all Mitchell’s youthful angst and uncertainty, grief and pain, hopes and losses are pristinely preserved in Blue’s notes and lyrics. It unwaveringly echoes all the trials and tribulations I’ve experienced as a twenty-first century millennial.
If proof were needed of how much her songs have endured, it’s telling that there have been 792 covers of River to date, and only two of these were made before 1990.
In an interview, snippets of which you can hear on BBC Sound’s Blue: Pain and Pleasure, Mitchell said: “If you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, it’ll probably make you cry and you’ll learn something about yourself and now you’re getting something out of it.”
My mum was one of those people who got something out of Mitchell’s music; it gave her solace in hard times and, in adulthood, it was a nostalgic reminder of all those youthful thoughts and passions that never really leave us.
When I found my mum’s Blue LP, it felt like an inheritance from her – shared wisdom she was passing on beyond the grave to help me cope in the years ahead. On the days when all I need is my mum, I turn to Blue, knowing that all the advice she could have given me is probably buried in all its intricate melodies and gossamer vocals. I listen to it so I am never without her, and those 50-year-old truisms feel just as real to me in 2021, as they did to my teenage mother.
“Blue songs are like tattoos”, Mitchell croons on the album’s title track. These songs are inked across my heart forever, and, I’m certain, the hearts of many generations to come.
Images: Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images