Blue, here is a shell for you
Inside you’ll hear a sigh, a foggy lullaby
There is your song from me
--Joni Mitchell, “Blue”
Joni Mitchell’s 1971 landmark album Blue holds its place firmly nestled in the throws of admiration and acclaim. The album was an immediate commercial and critical success, hitting number 15 on the Billboard 200, but decades later, the album continues to draw cherished fans and critical praise. In 2000, the New York Times selected Blue among its 25 albums that signified “ turning points and pinnacles ” in popular music over the last century. Rolling Stone included the album in its 2003 ranking of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and it was lauded again in 2006 (and many times in between) in Time’s All-TIME 100 Albums. What makes an album an instantaneous success is one elusive combination of cultural timing, artistic talent, voice, and tone, along with, quite simply, circumstance. But what sustains an album over the shifting course of timing and circumstances is a greater mystery. Sometimes album esteem is bound up in a single iconic image, other times, in a hit song that propelled an album in its entirety. But with Joni Mitchell’s Blue, it’s all about honesty.
Blue is highly confessional, autobiographical album that is painted with all the shades of emotion the color suggests. From the deep blue, velvety sadness on the title track, to the bright cerulean skies heard in “California.” Joni Mitchell twists in various tints of longing throughout the album, baring herself with honesty and artistic prowess.
In a 1979 Rolling Stone interview, Mitchell said of the Blue album, “There's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either."
Blue comes from that point of vulnerability. It’s not an album of attention-seeking honesty. If anything, it’s a confessional intentionally trying to divert attention away. Mitchell wants the blues of her own humanity and ordinariness on display, to show her fans that she is nothing special. This is perhaps the album’s only failure. Mitchell yearns for even footing with the public. Yet her attempt to regain that place among people is the very thing that catapults her to an even greater level of adoration.
In an interview featured in the Live Music Show, Mitchell explains, “My individual, psychological descent coincided, ironically, with my ascent into the public eye. They were putting me on a pedestal, and I was wobbling. So, I took it upon myself that since I was a public voice and was subject to this kind of weird worship, that they should know who they were worshipping.”
Yet even with this look-at-me-now-and-THEN-tell-me-you-worship-me dare of her fans, Mitchell knows that confessionals can be (and often are) about more than the minute details of the speaker. If honesty is truth, then the song of a Canadian girl on stage with an Appalachian dulcimer can suddenly be much more. Mitchell went on to say, “I was demanding of myself a deeper and greater honesty, more and more revelation in my work in order to give it back to the people where it goes into their lives, and nourishes them, and changes their direction, and makes light bulbs go off in their heads, and makes them feel. And it isn’t vague. It strikes against the very nerves of their life and in order to do that you have to strike against the very nerves of your own.”
Every detail in this honesty matters to Mitchell. What the album sounds like, feels like, and even what it looks like are part of an expression that create the confession. Mitchell is a painter and worked on the album art for her music throughout her career. Even every pitch and vocal inflection is a matter of honesty to Mitchell as well. In the 1979 Rolling Stone interview, she confesses that she doesn’t care for her sophomore album, Clouds, because she can hear the influence Crosby, Stills, and Nash had on her singing style. She hears it as a vocal affectation, and thus, a disingenuous way of singing. She believes that great singers, maybe not always popular singers but excellent singers, sing closest to their natural speaking voice.
Mitchell’s commitment to artistic honesty and integrity is not restricted to Blue. Throughout her career, she has been lauded, and at times lambasted, for her ability to create the unexpected. Each album in the Mitchell anthology is a series of experimentations. With styles ranging from traditional folk to pop, jazz, and world, Mitchell refuses to stay confined within a sound or genre. She lets her artistic pursuits and curiosity to guide her. She’s brave, in that way, and bold, which is precisely why she is, for all her confessions, adored and remembered.
Mitchell is only one of the 500 greatest albums of all time. She is a single singer in a line of greats that we’ve all propped up with admiration, whether they like it or not. But iconic images will fade, if not in memory than in relevance as what was a forward-looking statement comes to stand for a point in the past. Hit singles will live on compilation CDs and VJ retrospectives. But honesty will never fade. It’s a timeless chunk of a greater truth. It’s what separates stories from literature, theory from law, and the dark obscurities of midnight from clear, cerulean blue.
More on Joni Mitchell:
1979 Rolling Stones interview with Joni Mitchell
PBS American Masters series feature on Joni Mitchell
The Music of Joni Mitchell by Lloyd Whitesell (2008)
Joni Mitchell’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame page
The official Joni Mitchell website
Kristen Bialik works in public relations in Milwaukee, WI. When she’s not doing that, she’s trying to learn Korean, trying to write short stories, or trying to scheme up ways she can work for Conan O’Brien in Burbank. They’re works in progress.