Counterbalance No. 48: Joni Mitchell’s 'Blue'
Everybody's saying that hell's the hippest way out but Eric Klinger and Jason Mendelsohn don't think so. They’re taking a look around Joni Mitchell's 1971 folk masterpiece Blue -- Acclaimed Music’s 48th Greatest Album of All Time.
Mendelsohn: Klinger, I started out with a real dislike for this record, but over the past week it started to grow on me. But then, a few days ago, my distaste returned. At present, I don't hate this record but I don't want to listen to it anymore. It's sad and Mitchell's unique take on melody makes me feel weird -- too many jazz vibes and warbling vocals. I get it, man. I get it. Blue has to be here. But I'm hoping if I just set this record down and creep away slowly, no one will notice and I can go back to listening to records that include things like drums. I like drums, man.
Klinger: OK, Mendelsohn, you've dropped a lot on me right now, and I think it's going to take some time for us to really unpack your obviously complex and slightly confusing emotions regarding this album. Let's start with what I feel is the real turning point in your relationship with Blue: the point where your initial dislike softened into a sort of mild fondness. What do you think was the trigger for that reaction?
Mendelsohn: There wasn't a certain point, per se. It was probably my third or fourth time through the record, driving around in my car somewhere, trying to come up with jokes about Lilith Fair. I think I thought something along the lines of, "Damn, coming up with jokes about Joni Mitchell and Lilith Fair that aren't completely crass is really, really tough. Maybe I should just listen to this record for a while." And I did and the music was fine. The sun was shining, the windows were down, it was a beautiful day and Mitchell's strumming fit nicely into the background. The problem was I listened but I did not hear.
Once I started to actually hear this record, well, that goodwill vanished pretty quickly. But if you are interested in hearing some very off-color jokes aimed at singer-songwriters of the fairer sex, meet me in one of the seedier parts of the Internets. This place is way too nice for me to sully with such lowbrow (but hilarious) drivel.
Klinger: I'm sure your material's solid, but I recommend that you keep it well away from this august publication. And besides, comparing Blue to the chamomile strains of the Lilith Fair contingent is like comparing apples to pictures of people who are familiar with the concept of apples.
You mention above that Blue is sad, and it is. A lot of critics have spent a lot of time discussing how its sparse musical arrangements are a mirror to the "raw nerve" that Joni Mitchell has confessed to being at the time. But the sadness that I hear here isn't the kind that leads to wallowing; it's the kind that creates songs as tough as "Little Green" or as funny as "A Case of You" or as buoyant as "All I Want". I think that’s what critics are responding to, and I think that’s why it ranks so highly on the Great List.
I only really got around to Blue a few years ago, and I suspect that if I had heard it at a more fragile time in my life I might have focused on the heartbreak that winds through the album too. But as I listen to it as a reasonably settled middle-aged man, I hear something that's richer than sadness. There's a real sense of resilience behind Blue, and that's why it's an album that I keep coming back to—and it's why I suspect that Mitchell would give you a run for your money when it comes to bawdy gags.
Mendelsohn: I don't disagree. The sadness of Blue is a different shade when compared to the pining of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks or the sad-sackery of Radiohead's OK Computer, or even Brian Wilson's introverted longing on Pet Sounds. But listening to Mitchell sing about giving her daughter up for adoption is heart-wrenching and not something I enjoy. I'm not knocking it—there is definitely artistic merit to all of it and the cathartic release of recording and releasing music is nothing to scoff at, I just don't particularly like music that makes me think about the heaviness of the world. If I want to be sad, I'll go visit the dog pound or watch that episode of M*A*S*H where Col. Blake's helicopter gets shot down. If I'm going to listen to music, I want an escape. The only escape that Blue provides is a snapshot of Mitchell's life at the time and that doesn't sound like much fun. And again—no drums. No drums!
Klinger: Yeah, yeah, no drums. Or at least very few. You'll just have to beatbox along as you listen. Meanwhile, I suspect that somewhere in your record collection there are more than a few albums that deal explicitly with the heaviness of the world—music that’s hardly an escape. Maybe you have a higher tolerance for them because they're more elaborately adorned. With Blue, the intimate arrangements mean that Joni's right there in your face the whole time. And it's that level of closeness that I suppose can be a little uncomfortable.
I do want to come back to the first song, “All I Want”, though, because that song is anything but uncomfortable. In fact every time I hear that song, I know that I’m going to be settling in with this album for the long haul. Throughout the song, Mitchell’s soprano bobs and weaves around the rhythms of her Appalachian dulcimer, and her lyrics do likewise. She’s running the gamut from infatuation to frustration, a lot of the same feelings that come with the first blush of love. Whatever doubts she seems to be alluding to in the verses wash away on the choruses, and when she says she wants to knit you a sweater, you can’t help but want to go right along with it.
But no matter how sad Blue might be, Joni Mitchell demonstrates her toughness again and again. Even in "Little Green", the song you referenced earlier, she's sad and she's sorry but she's not ashamed. That line kills me every time I hear it, because it takes any thoughts of self-pity off the table. And that toughness is there throughout the album—Blue might not have much actual percussion, but Mitchell's playing is consistently propulsive and that creates a percussiveness of its own. None of these songs waft into the ozone, and I swear I could almost dance to a song like "This Flight Tonight" (to the extent that I am capable of dancing).
Mendelsohn: Nothing about this record is airy, which is both good and bad. I'd say it's mostly straightforward guitar and vocal work but it's not. And that's where my final problem with this album lies. Mitchell is working with some strange tunings which in turn result in odd arrangements—especially on the guitar-based tracks. I don't know if it has to do with her experience playing the ukulele or the influence of jazz (or both), but there is something a bit off-kilter about this record. Maybe it’s just the way my brain processes and Mitchell's very in-your-face style, which can be extremely unsettling when you listen to this record through headphones because it sounds like she's standing right next to you, singing directly in your ear.
Klinger: The idea of Joni Mitchell singing directly in my ear doesn't sound all that bad to me, apart from maybe those really high notes she gets up to. But I'm beginning to think that your real issues with Blue stem from the fact that the brutal honesty that she's laying down is unnerving to you. She wants to tell you all about her hopes and dreams and her joys and her fears and it's all too real for you, man. You can blame it on her ukulele stylings or her jazz influences, but deep down inside you're not ready for the kind of emotional commitment that Blue wants from you.
Come on, Mendelsohn—you don't want to end up like Richard, married to a figure skater with a coffee percolator, drinking alone in your modern living room! Embrace Blue, and all the heartache and elation that go along with that. Sure, sometimes it's a little scary, and sometimes there'll be sorrow, but then there will be times when you're hanging out with all the pretty people reading Rolling Stone. You could do worse.
Mendelsohn: I'll leave the emotional commitment and brutal honesty to you. All I'm looking for is a little fun and maybe a one night stand with one of those pretty girls who can appreciate the clean lines and minimalist stylings of my ultra-modern living room set.
Klinger: Well, that's a shame, although that is some handsome decor. Just remember, Blue will always be there when you need it.