The last time I saw Joni Mitchell perform was a year and a half ago at Boston’s Symphony Hall, in one of her final appearances before she forswore the concert circuit for good. Fragile, giggly and shy, she had the most obvious case of nerves I have ever seen in a professional singer. Her ringing soprano cracked with stage fright and her frightened eyes refused to make contact with the audience. It wasn’t until well into the second half of the concert that she settled down and began to enjoy herself; even then it seemed clear that she would have preferred a much smaller audience perhaps a cat by a fireside.
Joni Mitchell’s singing, her songwriting, her whole presence give off a feeling of vulnerability that one seldom encounters even in the most arty reaches of the music business. In “For Free,” her one song about songwriting, she declared that she sang “for fortune and those velvet curtain calls.” But she long ago renounced the curtain calls; and her songs, like James Taylor’s, are only incidentally commercial: Her primary purpose is to create something meaningful out of the random moments of pain and pleasure in her life.
In the course of Joni’s career, her singing style has remained the same but her basically autobiographical approach to lyrics has grown increasingly explicit. The curious mixture of realism and romance that characterized Joni Mitchell and Clouds (with their sort of “instant traditional” style, so reminiscent of Childe ballads) gradually gave way to the more contemporary pop music modern language of Ladies of the Canyon. Gone now was the occasionally excessive feyness of “Rows and rows of angel hair/And ice cream castles in the air”; in their place was an album that contained six very unromanticized accounts of troubled encounters with men.
Like Ladies, Blue is loaded with specific references to the recent past; it is less picturesque and old-fashioned sounding than Joni’s first two albums. It is also the most focused album: Blue is not only a mood and a kind of music, it is also Joni’s name for her paramour. The fact that half the songs on the album are about him give it a unity which Ladies lacked. In fact, they are the chief source of strength of this very powerful album.
Several of the lesser cuts on Blue give every indication of having sat in Joni’s trunk for some time. The folkie melody of “Little Green” recalls “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” from her second album. The pretty, “poetic” lyric is dressed up in such cryptic references that it passeth all understanding. “The Last Time I Saw Richard” is a memoir of Joni’s “dark cafe days,” cluttered with insignificant detail and reminiscent of the least memorable autobiographical songs on Ladies. “River” is an extended mea culpa that reeks of self-pity (“I’m so hard to handle/I’m so selfish and so sad/Now I’ve lost the best baby/That I ever had”). Joni’s ponderous piano accompaniment verges on a parody of Laura Nyro, especially the melodramatic intro, which is “Jingle Bells” in a minor key. The best of this lot is “My Old Man,” a lovely, conventional ballad.
These songs have little or nothing to do with the main theme of the album; developed in the remaining songs, which is the chronicle of Joni, a free lance romantic, searching for a permanent love. She announces this theme in the first line of the first cut, “All I Want”: “I am on a lonely road and I am traveling/Looking for something to set me free.”
The lonely road has taken her through a series of places in the past — from Chelsea to Sisotowbell Lane, from Laurel Canyon to Woodstock — and she had followed it in pursuit of the settled, long term happiness that has always eluded her. “All I Want” is a manifesto for that happiness; Joni has found a new lover and she bombards him with a list of her desires, piling them up in a quick succession of rhymes:
I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you
I want to renew you again and again
Applause, applause — life is our cause
When I think of your kisses, my mind see-saws
The accompaniment — James Taylor and Joni strumming a nervous, Latin-flavored guitar part over a bass heartbeat that throbs throughout the song — perfectly expresses Joni’s excitement and anticipation. So does the melody, a dipping, soaring affair which she sings in her sweetest soprano.
“All I Want,” though it begins the album, marks the end of the long holiday journey described in “Carey” and “California.” Both songs have the syncopated, Latin touch that characterizes the best cuts on the album. “Carey,” a calypso about dalliance on Crete, had a definite festival flavor, but with a twist at the end: “The wind is in from Africa/Last night I couldn’t sleep/Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here but it’s really not my home.”
“California” jumps along in short bursts, the lyrics giving snapshots of Joni’s European itinerary. Then comes the flowing chorus with its hint of tango, its plaintive pedal steel guitar and its homesick refrain: “Oh, it gets so lonely/When you’re walking and the streets are full of strangers.” The song is a model of subtle production; James Taylor’s twitchy guitar and Russ Kunkel’s superb, barely detectable high-hat and bass-pedal work give it just the right amount of propulsion.
In “This Flight Tonight,” “A Case of You,” and “Blue,” Joni comes to terms with the reality that loneliness is not simply the result of prolonged traveling; the basic problem is that her lover will not give her all she wants. In “This Flight Tonight,” Joni has walked out on her man, is flying West on a jet, and now regrets the decision. The lyrics, a clumsy attempt at stream of consciousness, are virtually unsingable and Joni’s lyric soprano is hopelessly at odds with the rock and roll tune. But the chorus has just the wispiest trace of Bo Diddley and it sticks with you:
Oh Starbright, starbright
You’ve got the lovin’ that I like, all right
Turn this crazy bird around
I shouldn’t have got on this flight tonight.
In “A Case of You,” James repeats the same dotted guitar riff he played in “California,” only the melody here is slow, stately and almost hymnlike. The song is neatly divided in its ambivalence: each verse is about a setback to the affair, followed by a chorus in which Joni affirms: “But you are in my blood like holy wine.” In comparing love to communion, Joni defines explicitly the underlying theme of Blue: for her love has become a religious quest, and surrendering to loneliness a sin.
It is only a short step from that to Joni’s vow that she will walk through hell-fire to follow her man: “Well everybody’s saying/That hell’s the hippest way to go/Well I don’t think so/But I’m gonna look around it though/Blue I love you.” This is “Blue,” the last cut on the first side but clearly the album’s final statement, the bottom of the slope downward from the euphoria of “All I Want.” For all its personal revelation, “All I Want” still sounds like a beautiful pop tune; “Blue,” on the other hand, has the secret, ineffably sad feeling of a Billie Holliday song. Joy, after all, can be shared with everybody, but intense pain leads to withdrawal and isolation.
“Blue” is a distillation of pain and is therefore the most private of Joni’s private songs. She wrote it for nobody but herself and her lover:
Blue here is a shell for you
Inside you’ll hear a sigh
A foggy lullaby
There is your song from me.
The beauty of the mysterious and unresolved melody and the expressiveness of the vocal make this song accessible to a general audience. But “Blue,” more than any of the other songs, shows Joni to be twice vulnerable: not only is she in pain as a private person, but her calling as an artist commands her to express her despair musically and reveal to an audience of record-buyers:
And yet, despite the title song. Blue is overall the freest, brightest, most cheerfully rhythmic album Joni has yet released. But the change in mood does not mean that Joni’s commitment to her own very personal naturalistic style has diminished. More than ever, Joni risks using details that might be construed as trivial in order to paint a vivid self portrait. She refuses to mask her real face behind imagery, as her fellow autobiographers James Taylor and Cat Stevens sometimes do.
In portraying herself so starkly, she has risked the ridiculous to achieve the sublime. The results though are seldom ridiculous; on Blue she has matched her popular music skills with the purity and honesty of what was once called folk music and through the blend she has given us some of the most beautiful moments in recent popular music.