John Kelly writes for Culture about the Albums That Will Save Your Life...
'Blue' is a well chosen word. Musicians know well what it signifies. It’s no accident either that the cover references a 1965 album by Otis Redding called Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul – although the blonde Joni wears a rather different expression to the blonde on the Otis Cover. And so, by way of title and sleeve, everything is set up perfectly – with a twist.
There had already been some extraordinary work from Joni Mitchell, but when her fourth album Blue appeared in 1971, new territory had been entered. Here were ten songs about actual relationships that revealed an emotional intelligence beyond anything imaginable to many people listening, plus a lyrical and musical confidence that beggared belief. Perhaps the best explanation might be found in the word genius - although Joni herself might prefer to explain it by way of a naked and detailed honesty.
Speculation in relation to the subject matter, while it may add little, is impossible to avoid. Which of these songs is about James Taylor? Carey is said to be about bartender working in Crete. Is My Old Man about Graham Nash? Is A Case of You really about Leonard Cohen? And who is the Richard in The Last Time I Saw Richard – a devastating masterpiece about romance and disillusionment, which like so many songs on this album, only ever began to make proper sense to me many, many years later. When I finally began to grow up.
In fact, the older I get the more I’m astonished by the achievements of writers in their twenties – which for me were the utterly clueless years – and I’m left reeling by the level of maturity, self-awareness and insight that so many of them possessed. Joni Mitchell in particular. Her lyrics have a devastating accuracy and the songs gathered even more power when she sang them again as an older person – her voice an octave deeper. And so I may be back to the word genius again.
And while Blue is an album about relationships in various scenarios and stages, it would be a mistake to think of it simply as an album about old lovers or, in this case, an album about men. It is, rather, an utterly forensic examination of the nuances of intimacy, desire, romance, disillusion and why we do the things we do. In 1971, this was radical. Radical, beautiful, indispensible. It still is.
The John Kelly Ensemble is on lyric fm, Monday-Friday @2pm.