Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ turns 50 – a look back on the groundbreakingly vulnerable masterpiece
What does it take to make one of the greatest albums of all time? For The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and Marvin Gaye, it meant doing something maximal, utilizing orchestras and multi-layered arrangements and coming out with something that just sounded so big. For Joni Mitchell, whose fourth album Blue is regularly and deservedly considered one of the best albums of all time, it was the exact opposite approach. The album featured contributions from some heavy hitters (Stephen Stills and James Taylor, the latter of whom is said to be one of the lovers/ex-lovers that the songs are about), but their contributions were minimal. The bulk of the album is Joni's voice accompanied by her guitar, piano, and/or Appalachian dulcimer. Only three of the ten songs have drums.
Matching the quiet, minimal tone is the level of vulnerability that this album has. The songs have been referred to as "love songs" or "breakup songs," but those descriptions do little justice for how simultaneously personal, singular, poetic, and conversational they are. They aren't overly sweet or sappy or woe-is-me; they're sharp and observational and reflective. Blue is an album that opens mid-scene, in motion, like an award-winning dramatic film: "I am on a lonely road and I am traveling," an opening line so iconic that the melody pops into your head just from reading it, and half a century later it still hasn't lost any of its impact. It's an album with snapshots of casual conversation ("Come on down to the Mermaid Café and I will buy you a bottle of wine, and we'll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down"), with anxiety ("I'm so hard to handle, I'm selfish and I'm sad"), with those moments when you find yourself alone again and everything hurts a little too much ("I'm drinking sweet champagne, got the headphones up high, can't numb you out, can't drum you out of my mind"). "All the men around me were really nervous," Joni said when discussing reactions to the album for David Yaffe's 2017 book Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. "The vulnerability freaked them out." The openness in Joni's songs was revolutionary at the time, and if the album doesn't seem that way now, it's only because of how massively influential Blue has become. To call it ahead of its time would be an understatement; it's spent the past fifty years spawning imitators and people are still trying to catch up.
It's accurate to call Blue a concept album, but not the kind where you can tell the artist was striving for greatness. It just is greatness. Blue has remained so perfect and timeless because it's a masterfully written album that feels so warm and welcoming. So many "great" albums feel impenetrable or difficult to latch onto, and there's of course merit in making music like that, but it takes arguably even more skill to write an album that's this profound and goes down this easy. Blue's simplicity is deceptive. The songs are accessible but sound like nothing released before or since. The album's mixture of folk, pop, and the jazz influences that Joni would explore further on later albums is so seamless that you only notice it if you're looking for it. Otherwise you just hear an untouchable collection of songs that sound familiar but not entirely possible to describe. Blue is an album that leaves an impact on first listen, but in both the lyrics and the instrumentation, you can spend a lifetime discovering more and more subtle details.
As far as just how wide Blue's influence is at this point, it'd be easier to make a list of musicians and songwriters who actively aren't inspired by Joni and this album in particular. Likeminded peers like David Crosby, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan admired her work greatly. Sonic Youth named a song after her. Veteran superstars like Madonna and current ones like Taylor Swift and Lorde have all sung her praises. The list of artists who have covered her work is diverse and endless, including but not limited to Bjork, Prince, Sufjan Stevens, Cat Power, James Blake, Hole, Rufus Wainwright, St. Vincent, and more. This year, Lana Del Rey covered her on her new album Chemtrails over the Country Club with help from Weyes Blood and Zella Day. In the liner notes for Joni's new box set The Reprise Albums (1968-1971), Brandi Carlile wrote, "In my opinion, Blue is the greatest album ever made." Joni's influence also stretches beyond the singer/songwriter realm; metal bands like Tool and Opeth have included her on lists of important and influential albums, and Kanye West sampled her.
Those artists' covers and favorite albums aren't all from Blue, and Blue isn't the only essential Joni Mitchell album. It came after three crucial documents of late '60s/early '70s folk (1968's Song to a Seagull, 1969's Clouds, and 1970's Ladies of the Canyon), and it was followed by a string of albums throughout the 1970s that found Joni diving deeper into her jazz influences, concluding with a collaboration with jazz legend Charles Mingus. (1977's expansive, jazz fusion-laden Don Juan's Reckless Daughter is a favorite of Bjork's.) Joni Mitchell released all-time classics on either side of Blue, but Blue was the moment where the stars aligned more perfectly than ever before or since. It's the tip of her jazz iceberg and the fullest realization of her folk roots. It wasn't the beginning or the end of Joni's journey and it shouldn't be the end of listeners' journeys with her work either, but -- as people have said for decades -- it is indeed a crowning achievement of not just her career but of pop music as a whole. 50 years later, that's as true as it ever was.
Remastered versions of Joni's first four albums, including Blue, are coming out as the box set The Reprise Albums (1968-1971) on July 2. Pre-order it now. Stream the album and watch live videos of a few of its songs below...