Ayuh Music: Joni Mitchell + Album Survey

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.

By Dr. Song

Dr Song is an archaeologist, in exile from the great state of Maine. Her life motto is "Hold fast."

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16 replies on “Ayuh Music: Joni Mitchell + Album Survey”

I listened to Blue practically every day of high school, along with Court and Spark, Simon and Garfunkel, and the Beatles. But Blue was and is definitely my favorite of all the albums I took from my parents. It still gives me goosebumps/brings me to tears. I relate to pretty much everything you said here, and now I just have to put Blue on on my ipod and listen at work, hopefully without tears.

Paul Simon’s Graceland. Apparently my parents used to play it in the car when they were driving around and even before I could properly talk I’d be trying to sing along in the back seat. There isn’t a track on that album that I don’t love, or know all the words to.

Queen – Greatest Hits. Even though I have much broader music tastes now, most of my early teens were spent listening to Queen on repeat. I also have soft spots for Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald and Carole King – my mum listened to them in the kitchen when she was teaching me to cook.

I have a freaky capacity to remember song lyrics, so I don’t use that as a measure stick.

To answer the question, I will not be dissuaded from my love of Jagged Little Pill.  I used to sneak listening to my dad’s copy of it when I was young, and then when I went to university, it was in frequent rotation in the hall study party cd player, and was belted into pens and highlighters by all.  It’s not really a visceral love (so I guess isn’t really answering the question) but I will defend it far, far beyond what most people would consider reasonable.

Call me a bandwagoner, but that scene in Love Actually when Emma Thompson knows that her husband is cheating on her, and she puts on Both Sides Now and cries and tries to get herself together to go to her children’s Christmas pageant? Yeah, that one.

From that second on, I wanted to listen to everything Joni Mitchell had ever sung.  Haven’t been disappointed yet.

Edit – I may or may not have You Tube-ed Both Sides now and I may or may not be softly crying at my desk.

I grew up listening to my parents’ Joni albums, but always rejected them out of hand because it was my parents’ music.  When I was 20 and moved out on my own, I remember buying Blue and Nelly Furtado’s Whoa Nelly one day.  I have to admit, I love them both equally, and both copies are worn to death.  Every time I hear “All I Want” or “Hey Man”, I remember living in a bright green bedroom in a punker house with no locking doors and ashtrays on every surface.  Ah, memories.

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