I don’t know if Robby knows this, but he keeps picking things that have challenged me in some way or another in the past. There’s Elvis Costello, who has negative personal associations for me. There’s the Don Henley country album, which is, y’know, a country album.
Now there’s Joni Mitchell’s Blue. During my teens and twenties, when my musical taste was forming, I just could not tolerate Mitchell’s voice. It’s an idiosyncratic instrument, prone to swoop low and then swing wildly high, within the space of a few notes, and something about it got under my skin. I didn’t mind “Help Me”, but the rest of her material simply did not work for me.
That has changed. I’ve got Adult Onset Joni Mitchell Appreciation Syndrome, and I remember exactly how it kicked in. About 15 years ago, I was Christmas shopping at a store in Boulder that’s long gone now. They had music playing, and I was struck by how amazingly good it sounded. Dizzyingly good. Even setting the vocals and lyrics aside for a moment, every note had this diamond-pure quality. It sounded like one or two people, playing beautifully in your living room. Clean, sweet, perfect. I asked the clerk what it was, and you can probably guess the answer: Blue, by Joni Mitchell.
The album still sounds like that to me. I’m still just astounded at its simple intimacy. Something locked into place for me that day, and now Mitchell’s voice belongs in that intoxicating sound, in a way no other voice would. The highs and lows she takes it through are a perfect match for the bittersweetness of these songs.
Listening to the album again this week, I was struck by Mitchell’s ability to capture a tiny moment, and use it as a camera obscura that projects a bigger emotional picture. In “A Case Of You”, there’s a little story, and a little image. A bit of dialogue from a fight, and Mitchell sitting at a bar, drawing a map of Canada on the back of a coaster, with her lover’s face sketched on it. This little image anchors the chorus, placing its emotional declarations in a context that feels so real. It doesn’t just feel like I’m there with her — it feels like I’m the one at the bar, drawing on the coaster.
“This Flight Tonight” does the same thing — Mitchell sitting on an airplane, drinking champagne with the headphones on. (An image echoed poignantly in Liz Phair’s “Stratford-On-Guy.”) “Up go the flaps, down go the wheels,” and in rush love, longing, regret, doubt, excitement, yearning, fear. So many of these songs place the bitter and the sweet right next to each other, creating a potent ache:
- “You got the touch so gentle and sweet / But you’ve got that look so critical / I can’t talk to you baby / I get so weak / Sometimes I think love is just mythical”
- “Oh, you’re a mean old Daddy, but I like you fine”
- “Applause, applause — life is our cause / When I think of your kisses / My mind see-saws / Do you see — do you see — do you see / How you hurt me baby / So I hurt you too / Then we both get so blue”
Perhaps the best example of mundane images reflecting deep emotional pain is “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” The first two verses tell a story that sets up an argument, with Richard arguing that all romance is a path to despair, while Joni insists that “love can be so sweet.” It’s that last verse that’s the killer, but it starts almost comically ordinary: “Richard got married to a figure skater, / And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolater.” But then comes the gut punch: “And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on / And all the house lights left up bright.”
He took her advice, and now here he is, right where he said he’d be. And now she is too, blowing the candle out at her cafe table, angry and sad and drunk, with nothing to say to anybody. And yet her last words, the last words of the album, allow yet for hope: “Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings / And fly away / Only a phase, these dark cafe days.”
It’s the perfect ending note, on an album full of perfect notes.