Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Joni's Opus

"All the debutantes in Houston, baby,
Couldn't hold a candle to you."

The Eagles
(who didn't write this about Joni Mitchell, but it fits)

I know most of you who are millennials think your generation has some good female singers. You might even believe that some of them are the greatest female singers ever. And I will admit that some of them do have potential.

But they just aren't in the same league with the women who dominated the music scene in the 1970s. I'll grant you, in many ways the '70s was a bummer of a decade. But one of the women who was recording in that decade was Joni Mitchell, and I defy anyone to top that.

Especially after you listen to the album she released 45 years ago today, "Blue." It wasn't her most commercially successful album, and it didn't contain any of her songs that most people think of when they think of her.

But "Blue" may well have been the most honest album in a catalog that was loaded with honesty. Rolling Stone called it the "ultimate breakup album" in 2012, and there is a good case to be made for that.

There is also a good case to be made for Jack Hamilton's assertion in The Atlantic less than a year later that "Blue" was "the greatest relationship album." Logic, it seems to me, would insist that both cannot be right — although Hamilton tried to have it both ways by observing that "the downside is that in our best–case scenario ... every single relationship we ever have, except for one, will end and end badly."

So I suppose it is possible for an album to be both a great relationship album and the ultimate breakup album. As they used to say on Saturday Night Live, it's a floor wax and a dessert topping.

Except it isn't.

I'm not sure whether "Blue" is a relationship album or a breakup album — or something else altogether. It is a question I have pondered the last few times I have listened to it, and about the only answer I have been able to come up with is that the album clearly has something to do with love.

I know that sounds vague, but, in my experience, love is often vague, particularly at first when one feels an attraction and desperately wishes to know if the feeling is returned. Then there is the vague unease one feels when a relationship that once showed such promise is coming apart. And there is the confusing vagueness of one's emotions about the other person after the two have split up.

In much the same spirit, I would say that Joni Mitchell was simultaneously a product of her times and an architect of them.

There may be no better song on the album than the title track. If you need evidence to convince someone of Mitchell's talent as a songwriter, the whole album would suffice, although the title track has everything you need.

There is so much more to the album, though, like "A Case of You."

I suppose, in almost any other era, and perhaps with almost any other singer/songwriter, "Blue" would be a landmark. But Mitchell should have proven her indisputable skill by that time. She had already released three successful albums and was the composer of "Woodstock," which was the B side for "Big Yellow Taxi," and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young included their cover of the song on their "Deja Vu" album. And yet ...

If 1939 is considered the greatest year in movie production (which it was), then 1971 ought to hold a similar distinction in the music industry. Led Zeppelin released its untitled album with "Stairway to Heaven" on it. The Who released "Who's Next," which had "Won't Get Fooled Again." Carole King released "Tapestry." Jethro Tull released "Aqualung." Marvin Gaye released "What's Going On." John Lennon released "Imagine." Don McLean released "American Pie." The Allman Brothers released their "Live at Fillmore East" album. George Harrison and his friends released the "Concert for Bangladesh."

An embarrassment of riches, 1971 was. Hard for a performer and/or an album to stand out. And yet ...

Most people regard "Blue" as one of the greatest albums of all time, but the reception from the music media of the day was inexplicably hostile. Although she was not yet 30, Rolling Stone dismissed her as "Old Lady of the Year." Perhaps she merely seemed old because she had been in the public eye for several years, had already experienced so much — and had been so forthcoming about it in her music.

To listen to "Blue" — well, to any of Mitchell's albums from those days — is to hear folk music at its best — not unlike hearing Simon and Garfunkel in their albums that preceded "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

And when you listen to "Blue," you will hear frequent moments of indisputably Joni Mitchell stylistic sounds that became familiar in her subsequent albums.

"Blue" was Joni Mitchell's opus.