Look Out The Left, The Captain Said: Blue Turns 50

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Joni Mitchell – Blue

Released June 22nd, 1971 on Reprise Records

Produced by Joni Mitchell

Peaked at #15 U.S., #3 U.K.

Singles:

Carey” (#93 U.K.)

California

Joni Mitchell – probably the most influential female songwriter of the 20th Century, and don’t even bother trying to argue – got her start in Saskatoon. Regardless of anything else that gets said about her, I want you to keep that in mind: she started doing coffeehouse gigs in what is basically an overgrown small town in the middle of the vast, flat Canadian prairies. There’s something deeply Alice Munro about that and it should give anyone hope: regardless of your circumstances, a little hard work and a lot of luck can carry you off into the sunset if you want it.

By the time Blue came out Joni Mitchell was already a star of the counter-culture. Her previous album, 1970’s Ladies Of The Canyon, had put her on the radar of the normies with a pair of hits. The first, “Woodstock“, is probably better known for the cover put out that same year by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young on their white-hot Deja Vu. The second, “Big Yellow Taxi“, hit the Hot 100 and is still referenced often today. In fact, the message encapsulated in that song seems to grow more prescient with every passing year. Despite this, the singer/songwriter entered 1970 needing a break from the grind of recording and performing. Her European vacation provided material for several songs on Blue, including “Carey” (about a Greek redneck she briefly shacked up with); her breakup from a two-year relationship with Graham Nash provided more. Yet more songwriting fodder came out of her torrid love affair with James Taylor, whom she fell for hard. The songs on Blue are a whirlwind that takes all of this and more in and creates some of the best music ever released. Most of this album has been covered at one time or another; it’s become something of a songwriter’s bible over the years. Of those covers, the most well-known has to be Nazareth’s cover of “This Flight Tonight“, which has been a rock radio staple probably since the moment of its release and the inspiration for Nancy Wilson’s stutter-and-strut riff on “Barracuda.”

The album has grown in stature over time. It wasn’t a huge seller at the time, not even cracking the Top 10 in the U.S. It was handed down generationally, though – older siblings to younger siblings, parents to children – and it was embedded into the DNA of up-and-coming new female artists. You can hear that influence in any number of singer/songwriters in the fifty years since its release, most notably in Taylor Swift now that she’s ditched the machinations of the pop industry in favour of doing her own thing. As far as breakup albums go it’s an intense one; the songs jangle and hum but in the background they weep, scream, and rage. When people refer to songs and albums as “confessional” they should be compared to Blue.

It’s easy enough to call Blue Joni Mitchell’s highwater mark (the latest Rolling Stone Top 500 has it right in at #3, although how much of that is the reference to the magazine in “California” we’ll never know) except for the fact that her later, mid-Seventies albums sold better and are also well-regarded and remembered. It’s certainly her most cohesive song collection, though, and the only one I can name where there is zero urge to skip any of the songs in favour of getting to a later one. In the end, hundreds of years from now and on the off-chance we make it through the ravages of climate change sort of intact, Blue will be the one people still remember.

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