Joni Mitchell's 1971 album Blue is often mentioned whenever some publication or website trots out an all-time best albums list of some sort. Mitchell might have hit upon the reason why it's so popular when she spoke to Cameron Crowe for a Rolling Stone interview in 1979.
"The Blue album, there's hardly a dishonest note in the vocals," she said. "At that period in my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn't pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either."
The centerpiece of that album is "A Case Of You," a gorgeously yearning ballad that benefits from the intimacy and lack of filter that Mitchell referenced in the interview. That tone is enhanced by the spare instrumentation: James Taylor on acoustic guitar, Russ Kunkel on drums, and Joni on Appalachian dulcimer. The gentle accompaniment allows her voice to be the guiding force, alternating between soft cooing and soaring falsetto as the emotion demands.
"A Case Of You" is one of the most beloved love songs of its era, which is somewhat ironic because it starts out with an admission that the relationship in question has run its course, as Mitchell sings in the very first line: "Just before our love got lost." Her lover's promises of stability are ones that he just can't keep, and she calls him on it: "You said / "I am constant as a northern star"/ And I said, "Constantly in the darkness."
Yet even as his wayward nature pushes her away, other traits pull her right back in. "I'm frightened by the devil," she sings. "And I'm drawn to those who ain't afraid." Mitchell describes the power he has over her in religious terms, comparing him to communion wine and, in the process, making this love seem much deeper than an ordinary fling.
This is Mitchell at her most accessible, even as the song takes some unexpected turns, such as when she breaks out into a brief rendition of the Canadian national anthem. Yet there is genuine emotion on display throughout, such as when she sings of how her ex has become so ingrained inside of her that he practically acts as her muse: "'Love is touching souls/ Surely you touched mine/ 'Cause part of you pours out of me/ In these lines from time to time."
In the refrain, she acknowledges the push and pull of his relationship once more: "You taste so bitter and sweet." Her concluding thought is one of those lines that songwriters will envy evermore, a line that evokes passion and love in a strikingly original way: "I could drink a case of you/ And still be on my feet." It's hard to say it any better than that.
With such dazzling skill and striking originality as her calling cards, it's no surprise that Joni Mitchell's legion of admirers is vast, especially among fellow songwriters. Sara Bareilles is one of those big fans, as she recently told American Songwriter.
"I discovered Joni Mitchell in college while I was on a year abroad and incredibly depressed," Bareilles said. "I'd gone to a little music studio looking for piano lessons, and an American man working there had me play some songs for him. He said my music reminded him of Joni Mitchell and the song "California" off of Blue. I was so homesick, weeping, listening to that song, but that's how I discovered her and I've just never been the same since.
"She's an angel. She's a goddess. She's incredible. Joni's just one of those really special voices in music, not just as a writer, but in a multitude of ways. She was the first lyricist I listened to, and she made me listen to music entirely differently. I could listen to a storyteller in a new way. Joni says things with an unexpected turn of phrase that makes otherwise mundane things very special, and she's got a real flair for how to capture the details of a person or a place. She's one of my favorite writers of all time, and has influenced me beyond words."
That respect from her performing peers is one of the reasons that Mitchell's songs have been so often covered. Her website lists 211 different artists who have covered "A Case Of You," ranging from the sublime (Prince) to the ridiculous (Frank Stallone.) Graham Nash, whose breakup with Mitchell is often cited as the inspiration for many of the songs on Blue, took a crack at it. Diana Krall's solo piano take is a showstopper, and the song continues to inspire, as evidenced by James Blake, a rising star in Great Britain, doing a faithful version in 2011.
Still, not one of these covers beats the original. It all goes back to the honesty and fearlessness of Joni Mitchell's performance of "A Case Of You," which, when combined with the beauty of the song itself, is intoxicating in every way.