Here was an artist at her rawest and most vulnerable.
Where the ‘60s were all about outward idealism in the form of peace and love, the introspective nature of the ‘70s was a direct result of the fallout, the need for a reassessing of self in the face of youthful, hedonistic abandon. In essence, pop music was aging in real time, its performers reflecting the post-high school, studious collegiate years with literate, deeply personal songs that touched on themes rarely considered previously. Instead of peace, love and drugs, there was depression, loneliness and disenfranchisement. Sure, it was a downer, but it was necessary given the excessive, unsustainable highs of the hippie lifestyle.
The queen of the Laurel Canyon hippies, Joni Mitchell was the first to truly explore the emotional and existential come-down that swept across the culture. Always a mature, poetic songstress, Mitchell raised the bar impossibly high with the still affecting Blue, an album synonymous with self-reflection, isolation and depression; just look at the blue-tinted cover image of an emotionally spent, resigned Mitchell. It’s the perfect visual approximation of the music, making it a perfect pairing of sound and vision to create and capture a very specific tone.
That she arrived at Blue so quickly after penning, “We are stardust, we are golden/ We are billion year old carbon /And we got to get ourselves back to the garden” (“Woodstock”) should not come as too much of a surprise despite those Age-of-Aquarius connotations. The song was from an outsider looking in; Mitchell never made it to the legendary peace and arts festival and instead built her lyrical depictions forever associated with the event from second-hand accounts. It’s a nod to the hippie culture while also something of a parting shot: “I feel myself a cog in something turning/ And maybe it’s the time of year/ Yes and maybe it’s the time of man/ And I don’t know who I am/ But life is for learning.” Blue offers the lyrical and musical embodiment of this learning process, one more often than not made up of shadows and light rather than shiny happy platitudes.
Even the album’s instrumentation is largely darker and more intimate than Mitchell’s late-‘60s poetic hippie folk. “All I Want” functions as an aural link to her earlier work before delving into her most intimate, personal material yet. “I am on a lonely road and I am traveling/ …Looking for something, what can it be?” Most importantly, the word “blue” crops up time and again throughout the album, appearing in nearly every track as either a descriptive color or melancholy emotional state; it literally bleeds through the album, the songs “Ink on a pin/ Underneath the skin” (“Blue”).
It’s an album built around the study of interpersonal relationships, both idealistic and realistic. “We don’t need no piece of paper/ From the city hall/ Keeping us tied and true/ My old man/ Keeping away my blues,” she sings on “My Old Man,” the quaint nature of their relationship dominating the majority of the song. Yet when it breaks into a minor progression, she begins reflecting on the feeling of loneliness and separation: “But when he’s gone/ Me and them lonesome blues collide/ The bed’s too big/ The fry pan’s too wide.”
“River,” one of Blue’s better known compositions along with “A Case of You,” and an unlikely holiday standard, encapsulates the album’s coming to terms with coming of age. Juxtaposing picture postcard images of Christmas with the season-less West Coast scene she idealizes the notion of escape afforded by a seemingly simpler existence. “It’s coming on Christmas/ They’re cutting down trees,” she starts off, before later bringing the listener into her reality: “But it don’t snow here/ It stays pretty green/ I’m going to make a lot of money/ Then I’m going to quit this crazy scene.” Her longing to escape harkens not only to her geographical conundrum, but also a more deeply intimate, interpersonal struggle: “I’m so hard to handle/ I’m selfish and I’m sad/ Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby/ That I ever had.” Yet, again, instead of facing up to her shortcomings she longs for a river that, “[she] could skate away on.”
Closer “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” encapsulates the overall emotional heft and intent underscoring Blue. It starts off looking back: “The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68/ And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday.” Here she shows the writing having been on the wall even then, everyone else was simply too distracted to take notice. “Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café/ You laugh he said you think you’re immune.” Richard is the seer and sage who foretold the end of ’60s idealism and the languor that would follow. Yet even he is not immune to his own prognostication, falling into a sense of domestic stasis by song’s end: “Richard got married to a figure skater/ And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator/ And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on.”
Blue was in many ways a transitional record; it spanned the distance between ‘60s idealism and ‘70s introspection while also serving as one of Mitchell’s last collections of intimate folk meditations before her more esoteric forays into jazz and more challenging songwriting structures. Here was an artist at her rawest, most vulnerable; no longer hiding behind abstract poeticisms and instead favoring straightforward lyrical assessments of her life and those around her.