In 1971, the singer-songwriter movement was in full swing, and Joni Mitchell simplified and darkened her approach to match. She was already part of the movement’s inner circle, having previously been involved with David Crosby and Graham Nash and now with James Taylor, and cemented her authenticity with the painfully open Blue.
While the first two songs are upbeat about promising relationships, Blue becomes more forthright with ‘Little Green’, about the child Joni had to give up for adoption. ‘This Flight Tonight’ details fear of flying, while ‘River’ details a bitter relationship breakup: “I’m so hard to handle/I’m selfish and I’m sad/Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby I ever had.” By the last two songs, Mitchell has completely lost faith in relationships; ‘A Case of You’ declares that “You are in my blood like holy wine/You taste so bitter and so sweet/I could drink a case of you darling and I would still be on my feet,” while ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ tells the story of a friend who loses his charm when he is seduced by a life of bland normality. The clumsiness of the lyrics “Richard got married to a figure skater/and he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee perculator,” perfectly captures the replacement of art and beauty by materialism and blandness.
While Blue is superb, her later trio of jazz inflected albums, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira, have more re-listening value; Blue doesn’t stand up to repeated listening as well, as it relies on emotional impact rather than musical complexity and texture. Hence, the best treatment for Blue is to pull it out occasionally and be surprised by the effective simplicity and honesty, rather than overplaying it. As well as playing her usual piano and guitar, Joni also makes use of the Appalachian Dulcimer on several tracks, leading to a resurgence in the instrument’s popularity.