The singer-songwriter lineage features some illustrious names, with many achieving mainstream success well beyond their simple, raw and emotional sound. Female artists such as Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, Tracy Chapman and Tori Amos all come to mind as modern examples of female singer-songwriting success. Whilst the male singer-songwriting legion features just as many, if not more, highly successful artists such as Bob Dylan, James Taylor,James Blunt and Elliott Smith all garnering massive fanbases.
What remains a muddle today is the notoriety of the originators of the singer-songwriter sound and genre. Although some artists like Bob Dylan
and Bruce Springsteen
have retained their legendary status, and rightfully so: There are a whole host of forgotten pioneers who have somehow fallen off the radar of modern listeners. Regardless of their influence over following generations of artists, names like Nick Drake
, Joan Baez, John Martyn
and Alice Stuart would only receive blank stares and puzzled expressions when used as name-drops, no doubt an expression shared by readers of this review. One of the saddest examples of this neglect towards the pioneers of the singer-songwriter genres is Joni Mitchell. Her influence on the singer-songwriter genre cannot be comprehended by mere namedrops, with music stylings originated by Joni Mitchell still repeatedly appearing in modern singer-songwriter albums. Whether conscious of her or not, many modern female artists have Joni Mitchell's imprint all over them, and it is for this that we can look at her as one of if not the most influential female recording artists of the 20th century; and likewise look at Blue
as one of the peaks of her Himalayan-like music catalogue.
When looking for reasons for Mitchell's lack of favour amongst the modern audience, one cannot look past the challenging nature of her music. Mitchell has never tried to nullify her lyrics or themes in favour of a more accessible sound. Her most accessible album, Court and Spark
, can even be considered a challenging listen, with a wealth of content hidden behind a wall of obscurity. If represented by quick snippets of sound, Blue
would appear totally unattractive and dull. Blue
demands a dedicated listen to fully appreciate the delicate and deep emotion. Some listeners will find this totally off-putting, but to ardent listeners, Blue
reveals its tender form, most notably in the lyrics.
In the music world, focus plays a large part in targeting the subconscious emotion in listener's heads and hearts. When the focus falls upon so few layers of sound, the importance of sonic depth becomes incredibly high. The usual one-two guitar/piano and vocals punch of the singer-songwriter genre places an incredibly large emphasis on the two feature instruments; requiring full, true, passionate and raw emotion in each instrument to rival that of a fifty-member orchestra. Poor lyricists often begin to strain under the burden placed on their vocal and lyrical talents, as can be seen with James Blunt
. But in direct contrast, the emphasis placed on the vocals and lyrics of singer-songwriters has produced some works of poetic genius, something Joni Mitchell captures with Blue
Some have speculated that Blue
was named after Mitchell's close friend David Blue, yet regardless of this the colour Blue
is an adequate description of the spirit of the album. The title track however can be seen clearly as a message to her suspected lover David Blue, intertwining subtle messages throughout the lyrics. The elongated first word of the title track evokes such natural emotion, an incredibly rare and unforgettable sound of Joni Mitchell sorrowing 'Blue' over an immersing piano melody. The song feels so fleeting, a moment in time, before being washed away by the tide. Yet its image remains long after its physical life, with the powerful emotion affecting the listener in an almost indescribable way, "Crown and anchor me, or let me sail away."
With just a piano and her voice, more emotion is created between the two than many artists could hope to create in their entire career.
There are moments of pure happiness in the album, as Joni Mitchell captures what its like to have the whole world in front of you. Songs like Carey
and My Old Man
reflect on special memories of the past and look optimistically towards the future in equal amounts. It is with subtlety that Joni Mitchell expresses all her feelings, never overbearing the listener with clear-as-glass themes, as is common with modern singer-songwriters. Her themes are surprisingly introspective, as can be seen in Carey
where she outlines her need to explore, her need to experience, her need to live "Last night I couldn't sleep. Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here, but, it's really not my home."
All I Want
stands out as a highlight on the album. A confused muted guitar makes the introduction before Mitchell clearly outlines a sense of no direction in life "Travelling, travelling, travelling. Looking for something, what can it be?"
Mitchell's vocals traverse across several octaves, reaching natural-sounding high notes as she outlines her desire to experience love and life. Never does the album float towards the darker aspects of life, but rather every sad note merely represents her sadness at not experiencing all the good in life. When she is sad, it is because of broken love. When she is sad, it is because of lack of opportunities in a mans world. Never does the album drag the listener down to pointless sadness, but instead portrays an intimate knowledge of our desire to live life. To love life.
An interesting alteration of a common Christmas jingle appears in River
, the intro clearly being a more reflective adaptation of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Details such as this tend to go unnoticed upon first listen. Each listen reveals more and more detail, especially the areas where Joni Mitchell draws focus. Her voice continually evolves throughout the album, and in no-song does she ever blandly follow a path. The ever-changing voice may not appeal to some, yet most will appreciate the texture of her warm heartfelt voice, and more so will appreciate her delicate subtlety.
Mitchell draws attention to certain words, and reflects it in her voice. In River
, her voice floats up into the air for two full bars when she sings "I would teach my feet to fly."
When pronouncing river, her voice skims softly. Countless examples could be provided throughout the album, and although most listeners won't notice; it adds ever-more the subconscious effect of the album.
As perhaps a last folk tale before a move towards diversification in sound, The Last Time I Saw Richard
tells the tale of an impure despicable man named Richard. As a direct contrast to her hopes and dreams, Richard can be felt as the anti-truth in relationships, the mistrust and also the ugly reality of life. "Richard, you haven't really changed, I said. It's just that now you're romanticizing some pain that's in your head."
As one of the saddest moments of the album, The Last Time I Saw Richard
embodies lost hope and untruthful relationships. The entire song feels wrong, as her voice reaches unnatural highs, unlike the beautiful high notes in All I want
. The piano never quite reveals itself, but moments of sadness are coupled with key lyrical lines and peaks of the ugly vocals. It is one of the most intense moments of the album, combining Mitchell's usual subtlety with a vivid portrayal of an ugly soul.
'Blue' is the best way to describe the album. Blue
offers a unique view of a world still entirely relevant today. The album takes on both sides of the fence in relationships, portraying both the wonderful moments and the moments of sorrow. The album looks forward to the future with open arms, yet feels confused as to which direction to travel. Put simply, the themes and messages are woven with the most delicate of hands. Joni Mitchell highlights all of her singing and song writing talent in Blue
, crafting each song with utmost care. Each element of the album is composed with unrivalled passion, from the magic lyrics to the heartfelt vocals. That said, many listeners will drop out after one quick listen. For those willing to persevere, to see Mitchell's message of beauty and lost beauty; Blue
provides one of the most enthralling experiences of the singer-songwriter genre.