This is the first album I ever owned. Well, okay, other than that Mariah Carey single my best friend gave me when I was 10. But this album I stole from my mother when I went off to boarding school at 13, and by god, it’s been with me ever since.
I know every single word to Blue. I learned them all when I was twelve, and weird. and looking for some goddamned women in the music industry who weren’t Britney Spears (this was before I embraced my inner gay). In 1998, I couldn’t find any. We didn’t have pop radio in my house – my parents had stopped listening to contemporary music around 1972 – so the grunge and club rock scenes had passed me by. My favorite albums even in middle school were folk albums of sea shanties. Really. I’m still embarrassed by this, and that I even went so far as to buy a pennywhistle with my scrimped allowance so I could learn to play along. Needless to say, I didn’t stand a chance: I couldn’t grow a huge sea-dog beard.
And then, the last year before I hit real womanhood, there was Joni, and Blue.
Oh, Joni. I learnt so much about myself to Blue, to its simple melodies and piercing sensibilities, never sentimental but always immediate, searching, confessional. All the walls are knocked down on Blue, and it’s just you: a woman with a piano, a guitar, a dulcimer, maybe the echo of her own voice creating mirror harmonies. Now, years later, learning the guitar. I will think: how can the chords in these songs be so complex, the tunings so specific and specialized? Listening, they flow like water, seemingly with no artifice or show. They simply appear, as Joni’s voice appears: alto, Canadian, certainly not a virtuoso vocal talent but so much more arresting for its frailty. It’s modernism, it’s feminism, it’s 1971 and after all that time struggling to get out of Stephen Still’s shadow, you’d arrived, Joni, and we never needed you more.
Every song on this album is golden. From the exuberant opener “All I Want” to the final, solitary, orphaning “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” Mitchell nails every line, every note, and every emotion. Often she overreaches her own voice, and it cracks or blurs; rather than being a mark of weakness it’s a note of rawness, a sense that her own physical qualities are her limitations.
There’s so much that has been written about Blue – about its place in the canon of Western popular music, its role in helping women find their voice in a male-dominated industry, the fact that it’s the best Canadian album ever made second only to Harvest Moon – but I can’t approach it that way. To me it’s a deeply personal album, one I can’t properly review so much as share. All I can do is hold it out in my hands and say, “Hush! Listen!” and hopefully you’ll listen, and find within it the things I found: the complexity of the female brain and psyche, the reach and pull of love, the idea of home. “A Case Of You” is the highlight, combining the gorgeous finger-picked guitar line with the poetry of loss that Joni does so well.
For me, Blue is not so much an album as it is a collection of memories; every song evokes a specific moment from my childhood. The whole record is like a photobook, which I can page through and, through it, revisit some of the most important moments of my adolescence. I can’t be more critical than that.
I think everyone has an album like Blue: one which is so visceral and so important to them that no real rational thought about it is possible. What’s yours? Leave a comment.