Review Summary: The colour of melancholy.
Old Times Series: (Part 5)
Before I discovered Joni Mitchell
, I had no idea what a breakup feels like, even after watching numerous melodramatic breakup scenes in the television and movie theatre and listening to the so-called breakup songs, and all I know it’s basically the end of a romantic relationship. After listening to the record, however, it became clear to me that breakup is a bitter, devastating process, which could only be described as a dark blue filter placed in front of your pupil, making everything you see is drenched in the color of blue. For a music fan who previously adored Mitchell for her stunning songwriting, I am still mesmerised with the bare honesty of the 1971 masterpiece to this day, even when she already released three high-quality full-lengths and later released more stunning albums such as Courts and Sparks
, Hissing of Summer Lawns
. Riddled with Mitchell’s heart-stirring vocals, sparse compositions and poignant lyrics, Blue
is a sublime catharsis that would remain as a benchmark for future singers/songwriters to come.
What makes this album such a masterstroke is its stark lyrics that explore the numerous sides of various relationships, where none of Mitchell’s peers and even herself prior to this album. The frosty “River” is the exemplary: with the accompaniment of the piano section which borrows from the Christmas classic “Jingle Bells”, Mitchell lamented her devastating breakup near Christmas time with her vocals shifted from depressed lows to a soaring high, as she wished to break free from both her tethered broken bonds from her previous relationship and the money-hungry music scene(“Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on
”), all the while watching her neighbors putting up their Christmas decoration and remembering her happy days with her former lover(“He tried hard to help me/You know, he put me at ease
”), a picture that describes a post-breakup sombreness at its essence. The Appalachian dulcimer-and-acoustic guitar-backed “A Case of You” is also an unmistakable highlight as well, with Mitchell yearned about her inescapable love with her love-lorn vocals, as she lamented about how she could not forget her former romantic lover (“I drew a map of Canada/Oh, Canada/With your face sketched on it twice
”), while describing how he calmed her down during her difficult times(“I remember that time you told me/You said, ‘Love is touching souls’/Surely you touched mine
”), while describing him as a holy wine, a drink that she described as both bitter and sweet, portraying her own struggle with putting down her old romantic flames. The crowning jewels only display part of the bare honesty of the album, as Mitchell also sketched her personal blues into intriguing vignettes, from her reminiscence of her past relationships (“All I Want”, “My Old Man”), her vacation in Europe where she would write part of the album (“Carey”, ”California”), her hesitation towards her dissolution of the romantic relationship (“This Flight Tonight”) to her lament of giving up her baby daughter (“Little Green”) and the surrealistic discussion of the depravities of the rock and roll and hippie culture(the title track). With such soul-baring and revealing lyrics, it perhaps not surprising that this album is named Blue
, as Mitchell wrote her personal blues into every second of this record without any dishonesty, creating a lyrical triumph that very few could equal with.
But the minimalistic yet more adventurous arrangements in this record are not to be ignored either, where Mitchell herself would expand her sonic texture from the typical acoustic guitar, a hint that she would expand beyond her folk beginnings in her later career. Although “This Flight Tonight” and “Little Green” showcased her signature use of open-tuned guitar, with “California”, “All I Want” and “A Case of You” also featured James Taylor on guitar, as well as some drums and bass in the album, the majority of the album is dominated with other instruments. In the case of the Appalachian dulcimer, Mitchell utilised the exotic instrument to express her emotions in the songs, whether she was happily strumming it in “Carey” and “All I Want” with the accompaniment of sparse percussions, as well as a joyful vocal harmony and a jazzy bass in the former and a folky acoustic guitar in the latter, to express her relaxed and happy moments. In “California” and the aforementioned “A Case of You”, however, she played the more downbeat pick-and-strum to accentuate the more melancholy moments in the album, with the former finds Mitchell experiencing homesick when she was traveling in Europe, as she was yelping to the state that she missed its warm familiarness. On the other hand, Mitchell also create intimate portraits with the help of a piano: Not only she used it to contemplate her own loneliness in “River”, she also utilised it to picture the remembrance of her joyful flame in “My Old Man” and her bitter reunion with her unsavoury former lover in “The Last Time I Saw Richard”. But it was the title track where Mitchell uses the instrument to exert the album’s signature honesty to the front, with her singing the heavy lyrics with the beautiful piano melody showered on her bittersweet vocals, fitting the song’s contemplation about whether substance usage, sex, and escapism could recover one from emptiness in the decade where hippie culture is thriving. With such departure from the use of a more full-bodied acoustic guitar towards the sparser sonic compositions, Mitchell was able to put her singing and lyrics in the forefront, resulting in an album that is emotionally raw and powerfull.
Although the standards such as “Woodstock”, “Both Sides, Now”, “The Circle Game” and “Big Yellow Taxi” have put Mitchell in the same league with Leonard Cohen
and Neil Young
, it was Blue
that not only became her defining statement in her five-decade-long career, but perhaps the greatest breakup album of all time. Vivid, yet blurry, melancholic, sparse and ultimately profound, Blue
is a sonic equivalent to an impressionistic, monochromatic watercolor that is painted with the titular color palette. When this album was ultimately placed at number one on NPR’s The 150 Greatest Albums Made By Women list and number 30 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, among many accolades it received, I am not surprised at all: Blue
highlights that everyone gets their own personal blues, and showcased its creator’s with her own fine crafted lyrics and unbridled honesty, with the latter of which it became a feature where various musicians in later generations tried to replicate, both intentionally and unintentionally, with the former of which included Tori Amos, Rufus Wainwright, Prince and even Mikael Åkerfeldt from Opeth. As a result, this often imitated yet never fully replicated musical stamp, along with the album’s airy yet striking compositions and Mitchell’s emotive vocals, would seal Blue
not only become one of the best albums in the 1970s but one of the greatest albums of all time.
Personal Rating: 5 / 5
A Case of You