Listening Closely. No 4 - Joni Mitchell's Blue

Dig it out and re-listen, or if you've not heard it buy it. Hope everyone is well, sort of same still. JP X

'Blue' is a big album for me; it was my way into the music and songs of Joni Mitchell. Not only an incredible songwriter but a unique acoustic guitarist, often tuning the guitar in totally unusual ways, giving her access to notes, chords, progressions and melodies, you'd be hard to find in any other way.

Blue is a very stripped back album instrumentally, leaving so much space for Joni's voice, in the early seventies her voice was at the height of its powers. I guess I'd describe this album as singer/songwriter folk, but at times, like John Martyn, there is a flavouring of jazz, both chordally and in the vocal melody, to be honest, when music is this good, titles seem irrelevant.

Recorded in 1971, after a year off to travel around Europe. 'Blue' is Joni Mitchell's fourth record and is considered by many as one of, not only her best but as one of the best albums ever made.

'All I Want', opens this album with a wonderfully hooky, acoustic guitar, dulcimer and minimal percussion. I never realised that James Taylor played guitar on this track, on closer listening, I can hear it now. James Taylor and Joni were a couple at this time; this track is about him. By all accounts, this was quite an intense relationship; during this time, James Taylor was also a heroin addict. This song is love in three verses, its adorable lines 'I wanna talk to you, I wanna shampoo you, I wanna renew you again and again'. 'When I think of your kisses, my mind see-saws'. Describing perfectly, being loved up. Even on this optimistic note though, the song still has a shade of blue within it, there's loneliness, jealousy and hurt too. I think it perfectly captures the myriad emotions of falling in love with someone.

‘All I want’. A really interesting early version.

'My Old Man', apparently written about Graham Nash, who Joni was in a relationship with before she travelled around Europe. Joni on piano, it's wonderful, her voice is perfect, capturing all the emotion in this song perfectly. It contains my favourite line 'He's the warmest chord I ever heard, play that warm chord, play and stay, baby'. The blues though is never far away, and Joni captures that feeling of being separated from your loved one, 'the bed's too big, the frying pan’s too wide'. Who's not been there? Followed by quite an unusual piano run into the next verse. It feels like a song about her man's inability to commit to a relationship, and Joni seems dependant on this relationship to stay happy, which is making her more miserable. The piano at the end is slightly jarring, almost sarcastic.

'My old man' The piano intro is amazing, it's a great insight to hear these songs played before they're finished.

‘Little Green’. Such a deeply personal song. Written in 1966 when Joni signed the papers to put her daughter up for adoption. Just acoustic guitar and vocal but that vocal melody for the chorus is divine. The lyrics are so powerful, like so many tracks on this record, there's hope but an undercurrent of sadness, an accurate depiction of life.

'Little Green' Interesting reharmonization of the chorus, Joni seems always to be searching for something.

‘Carey’, Is a total contrast of a song, has a real hippie vibe and is about a relationship with a cane carrying chief in a hippie commune named Cary Raditz, he was nicknamed "carrot Raditz" as he had bright red hair. I just long to go to the 'Mermaid Café' and see a young Joni Mitchell play.

'Carey' Live in 1983 played on the Appalachian Dulcimer.

'Blue'. Just relistening to it now, that strange jazzy chord at the end I've never noticed before. This song is heartbreaking. Is Blue a person? A mood? I love the coupling of songwriting being like tattoos, for a song to stick, it has to leave its mark, get under your skin. She then links this with the sea and sailors. ‘Songs are like tattoos You know I've been to sea before, Crown and anchor me, Or let me sail away'.

‘Blue’ that first note.

'California' A song of wanting to go back to California, homesick perhaps? Written while in France, feels like a travel journal in the form of a song. The music manages to catch the sunny vibe of California; I think a lot of this is due to the subtle and light drumming of Russ Kunkel, wonderfully played. The bridge when the pedal steel comes is gorgeous too. The vocal refrain at the end has the seeds of another song in it. James Taylor reappears on guitar, what a fine player.

‘California’ Live on the Johnny Cash TV Show.

'This Flight Tonight'. A song with a guitar bottom string tuned to a low G, pretty unusual. The guitar is tuned GGDGBD; she places a capo on the first fret making it AbAbEbAbCEb, highlighting what an inventive guitarist she is. A song about leaving a lover on a flight and she regrets it. This was a massive hit for a rock band from Scotland called 'Nazareth'.

‘Nazareth’s version. Just brilliant.

‘River’. Joni Mitchell’s Christmas song, more a song set around Christmas rather than about Christmas. I love the chorus lines’ Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on’ There’s a real beauty to the altered version of ‘Jingle bells’. Her vocal delivery is sublime, the note she hits on ‘Fly’, amazing. A song of regret, the confusing, mixed paradoxical feelings of leaving someone you love.

‘River’ Live at the Royal Albert Hall

'A case of you'. Recorded with Joni playing the Appalachian Dulcimer and James Taylor playing acoustic guitar. 'If I could drink a case of you, I'd still be on my feet' What a line. Another song attributed to the relationship break up of Joni and Graham Nash. There's more of a bitterness in this song, not only in the wine but in the line 'stay with him and be prepared to bleed'. Ellie Golding had a number one with this song in 2019; it's one of Joni's must covered songs, even covered by Prince no less. I do like the Tori Amos version myself.

‘A case of you’ Live

'The Last Time I Saw Richard'. Lyrically this song fits well with the way Tom Waits writes about characters in songs, very descriptive, perfectly written and blue. Rumoured to be written about her brief marriage. The bitterness oozes out of the male character; I hope I've never been like this.

‘The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in '68 And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café You laugh he said you think you're immune Go look at your eyes they're full of moon You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you All those pretty lies pretty lies When you gonna realise they're only pretty lies Only pretty lies just pretty lies’

'The Last Time I Saw Richard' Live

On listening to this album again, I'm now going to dig into the Mitchell archives; there's a live album I've not heard before. 'Miles of Aisles'.

Happy Listening


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