There is this belief that has been present in western culture that being emotional and showing vulnerability is a sign of weakness. “Be a man” is a common phrase often addressed at people in emotional distress telling them to hide it away. Being emotional and being strong have been considered mutually exclusive, but in this blog I would like to formally state that I think that is bullshit. One of the most difficult things that a person can do is be honest with themselves and those around them and today’s album exemplifies the strength in vulnerability perfectly. Ranked as high as the 3rd greatest album of all time (according to Rolling Stone Magazine’s recent update to the 500 Greatest Albums list), considered by NPR to be the “Greatest Album Ever by a Woman”, today’s record is Joni Mitchell’s 1971 landmark album, simply titled Blue.
Despite being a hall of fame record, a critical and commercial success, and being nearly universally considered a great work of art, today’s album, the first of this month’s plan, is probably the most controversial pick in relation to this month’s theme. Blue is, for all intents and purposes, an autobiographical album. It explores love from a number of angles. At points Joni is giddy and excited, relishing the bliss of the of a blooming romance. At other times she finds herself alone again, remorseful for her actions, wishing things had gone differently. In reality, the stories told throughout Blue are bits and pieces taken from 3 separate romances Joni had near to or during the making of this album. Told out of order for a greater composition and artistic effect, over the course of 36 minutes Joni lays bare every fiber of her heart while still keeping the poetic lyrics vague enough for the listener to have their own unique experience with the record. 8 years following the release of the album, in an interview Mitchell would remark “There’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period in my life, I had no personal defenses.” Both the heights of her joy and the depths of her sorrow are palpable. And what I find to be really beautiful about this album is how Joni makes it more than just a cathartic experience of wallowing in her emotions. As much as any record I’ve ever heard Blue is reflective. It almost feels therapeutic, and who knows? Maybe it was for her.
Given the subject matter of this record, a lesser artist may have just complained about their hardships. When faced with trouble and turbulence people are far too quick to blame others for their misfortune, but there isn’t any resentment towards anybody in this record, save for maybe herself. In the most famous track of this album (and maybe Mitchell’s entire discography) the anti-Christmas minor key remorseful ballad titled “River” Joni comes to realize her own missteps in her journey for love. Mitchell sings “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.” This may be the most important moment in the album in terms of narrative. Blue more or less revolves around Mitchell’s quest for love. All that she does for the better part of the album is seek it out, actively trying to find love only to ruin it when she has it. The cruel irony here is that you can’t love somebody else without loving yourself first, and the first step to self acceptance and love is coming to terms with your past. On the track “Little Green” Mitchell expresses remorse for her past actions, some of which would be kept secret until years after the release of this album. The main thing, we now know, that Mitchell tackles on “Little Green” was the unwanted pregnancy she had in college, which resulted in her having the child, largely in secret, and putting her newborn daughter up for adoption. These are the types of things that you rarely, if ever, will hear an artist discuss publicly, much less on a vinyl record. The bravery required for that kind of honesty, and the strength to be honest with oneself in order to achieve a better future is staggering.
It would be easy to look at Blue on a surface level and make the assessment that this isn’t a strong album by a strong person, but that is not how I choose to read this album. The way I see it, somewhere on Blue Joni Mitchell realizes her mistakes and decides not to rectify them, but to accept them. Blue isn’t about Joni Mitchell becoming a better person, narratively speaking, rather, I’d like to believe that Blue is the exercise through which Mitchell faces herself. In making this album and being terrifically honest to the whole world, she had to be honest with herself. Honestly, I can’t think of very many things more powerful than that.
Thank you for reading, and thank Joni Mitchell for this beautiful piece of art.
Benny the Jet, skating on my river to tomorrow’s album.