November 20, 2008

Joni Mitchell: Blue (1971)

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Like the birth of a child, some experiences are so profound that words only cheapen them. One such experience is Blue, Joni Mitchell’s 1971 classic — an album as essential to the lexicon of rock and roll as Sgt. Pepper and Blonde on Blonde. Along with the Beatles and Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell is a 20th century musical icon, one whose style is uniquely her own, and whose brilliance eludes understanding. The unconventional tunings; the soaring vibrato; the see-sawing lyrics — Mitchell’s music is so visceral, so free, so untamed, that pinning it down diminishes it, like putting a wild animal into captivity.
Blue is especially difficult to write about because it’s so essentially Joni. Unlike the jazzy intricacy of her later work, Blue is naked, emotionally and musically. Mitchell wrote the album in her late 20s, laden with the emotional weight of several failed relationships, including her first marriage. She performs most songs alone on guitar, piano and dulcimer with minimal accompaniment, and sings of the trials and triumphs of love — from the post-breakup heartbreak of “River,” to the starry-eyed romance of “A Case of You.”
Perhaps what makes Blue unforgettable is the simple eloquence with which Mitchell expresses these universal emotions and sentiments: regret in “This Flight Tonight” (“I hope it’s better when we meet again”), and unrest in the title track (“You know I’ve been to sea before / Crown and anchor me / Or let me sail away.”).
Or maybe it’s just the intimacy of the album itself — the shock of feeling Mitchell’s raw, swirling emotions along with her. When she brags, “I could drink a case of you, darling / And I would still be on my feet,” I feel my own knees start to buckle. However resilient Joni may be, Blue is an album best taken sitting down. Be forewarned.