As far as heartbreaking albums go, Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” still stands out as a classic of poetic heartbreak. Throughout the album, Mitchell weaves herself in and out of a narrative of travel, escape, regret, and heartache as she tries to cope with the most gut-wrenching parts of love. Over 40 years later, it’s still an album worth revisiting time and time again. Mitchell’s raw honesty and impeccable songwriting on the album are just too good to pass up.
One of the best songs from the album is “A Case of You,” a simple and beautiful track that uses guitar and dulcimer to document the way that Mitchell’s lover gets inside her very being, comparing the pleasures and pain of love to the intoxication of alcohol:
“Oh you are in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter
And so sweet oh
I could drink a case of you darling and I would
Still be on my feet
Oh I would still be on my feet”
James Taylor, who was in a romantic relationship with Mitchell up until near the release of “Blue,” plays guitar on the track, which offers the perfect accompaniment to a song that so delicately touches on attachment and the more potent parts of love.
James Blake, with his enchanting voice, would go on to do a heartbreaking cover of the song that would speak to the song’s lasting power and emotional weight.
Another track, “River,” begins with a sad refrain of “Jingle Bells” on the piano as Mitchell eases into a story of hurting the one she loves, wishing for a “river I could skate away on.” Nowadays the song has become something of a Christmas classic, with its references to Christmastime and the rituals surrounding it serving as a colorful contrast to the emotional pain of the narrator. The idea of the river, of wholeness being frozen over, or of the innocent act of skating, only serve to accentuate the emotional wreckage that relationships often leave us with.
Throughout “Blue,” Mitchell holds nothing back, exposing her most personal thoughts and the deepest pain in her life. Even the song “California,” the most upbeat track on the album, documents Mitchell’s homesickness while traveling the world. In the song she addresses the state she longs to return to, confessing to being “strung out on another man” and feeling lonely among groups of strangers:
“Oh it gets so lonely
When you’re walking
And the streets are full of strangers
All the news of home you read
And the bloody changes
Oh will you take me as I am?”
It’s this kind of radical acceptance that Mitchell speaks to on “Blue,” and is the goal of any person strung out on a relationship. This gut-wrenching confusion and helplessness isn’t what we want from love. We want to have compassion for others and our selves, bringing out the best in everybody, which is what the album’s opener, “All I Want,” says from the start:
“I am on a lonely road and I am traveling
Looking for the key to set me free
Oh the jealousy
The greed is the unraveling it’s the unraveling
And it undoes all the joy that could be”
Having listened to this album many times, I can speak to its lasting power and potency. It’s a collection of songs that continues to speak to the broken-hearted ones, to the people that find themselves lost in a sea of love without rudder or oar, with no land in sight. At least we can comfort ourselves in the raw power of Joni’s songs, music that’s powerful because of its unrestrained honesty. There’s nothing like a guiding light in an ocean of blue.