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Anatomy of a Perfect Album Print-ready version

On Joni Mitchell's Blue

by John Corbett
Literary Hub
March 19, 2019

What makes a perfect record perfect?

Start with quality ingredients; there can't be a weak moment, all the songs must have a gravity of their own, and they need to work together as a unit. Flow is incredibly important, how tracks progress, pacing, contrast between songs, continuities and breaks, the program's sequence, the crucial flip between sides - which needs to feel urgent, not optional - the way that in the end the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. If it is indeed a perfect record, when the second side is over the listener should feel compelled without hesitation to go back to the beginning and start over.

The first half of the 1970s brought the apex of the album as a medium. A decade prior, labels had still seen albums as receptacles for already popular songs: take a couple of those, add filler, put them together, throw them in the oven, and bake. Or half bake, anyway. With watershed LPs like the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, the Beatles' Rubber Soul and Revolver , the Kinks' Face to Face, and the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out!, albums were being treated seriously by the mid-'60s, and by the time Joni Mitchell recorded Blue, the long-playing record album was fully asserted as the true musician's palette, rather than a clearinghouse for unrelated tracks. Once a collection of family snapshots, an album could now be a major motion picture; once a set of little windows, now it could be a wide-open door. By 1971, a record album was a drawbridge, opened and extended into a span from our fortresses of solitude to the other side of the moat, whatever mental waterway might encircle us.

For a sense of how to construct an ideal '70s LP, consider just the economy of main instrument choices on Blue. In order of appearance: dulcimer, piano, guitar, dulcimer and guitar, piano, dulcimer, guitar, piano, dulcimer, piano. So symmetrically balanced it's almost a palindrome. Mitchell's perfect record is dedicated mostly to songs about leaving and journeying, about returning or being homesick. Seen from the fairly conservative folk enclave that it crawled out of, Blue is a joyful, rambunctious, even shocking outing - take the lines from the title track: Acid, booze, and ass / Needles, guns, and grass / Lots of laughs, lots of laughs - even as it is also gut-wrenchingly melancholic and plainly romantic. I hear it as a full-force embrace of mobility and independence - the former domain of guys, now a right to be enjoyed and cherished and protected by women. Move over Roger Miller, Mr. "King of the Road," and Steppenwolf, with your road anthem "Born to Be Wild," and all you ambling, one-night-standing, commitment-averse, uprooting, circumambulating, papa- was-a-rolling-stoning fellas, there's a new captain at the helm: she's a hard-drinking free spirit, and she's got some lost time to make up for.

Mitchell starts the record right off with wanderlust, her first words: I am on a lonely road and I am traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling, amplifying the feeling later: I am on a lonely road and I am traveling / Looking for the key to set me free. By boat, plane, foot, and ice skate, her whims and fancies take her to a Greek island, Paris (she doesn't like it there), Spain, Las Vegas, maybe Amsterdam and Rome, and return home to her Ithaca, which is California. You hear Mitchell's original Canadian-ness when she lands on the word "sorrow" as "soe-row" on "Little Green," a poignant 1967 song, revived for this recording, from the perspective of a young single mother, also in the reverent way she intones the Canadian national anthem, "O Canada," in the middle of "A Case of You."

With its stunning use of dulcimer - an otherwise out-of-step Appalachian hill instrument unhip like the banjo was when the Monks chose it as their replacement for rhythm guitar - Blue is as eloquent a setting of poems to music as you'll find, a call to live life where you find it, loving the one you're with, departing from them eventually in an inevitable moving along, no matter how hard or sad. Cameo appearances by Stephen Stills and James Taylor are supporting rather than soloistic, as are subtle hand percussion and two little pedal steel interjections. Songs are like tattoos, Mitchell sings, her pure-toned voice channeling jazz torch into painful memory. She's brought her flash art book here to select the proper tattoo for your travels and travails. A song lives with you. You carry it around forever - a mother, sweet Marie, mermaid, anchor, skull - even after you've moved on. Ink on a pin / Underneath the skin / An empty space to fill in.

On "The Last Time I Saw Richard," the album's tremulous closer, Mitchell recounts her friend's capitulation to a straight domestic life, drinking in front of the TV, having warned her two years earlier: All romantics meet the same fate someday / Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café. She's a romantic, for sure (note that at one point she fondly recounts being told that love is touching souls), but not above reproach, at song's end she admits her own hidin' behind bottles in dark cafés. So Richard's right. But she insists: Only a phase, these dark café days.

I once had a girlfriend who liked to put on Blue without anyone around because she wanted to make herself cry. She felt more human when it was over, she said. Matter of fact, I have never been with a woman who didn't love the record. I have met a few who don't, mostly gals who think it's too mushy or syrupy or girlie. On the other side, I'm also familiar with a man or two who has used it as a way to play their inamorata's heartstrings, guys who would spread display feathers in a false dance of sensitivity. It's a strong emotional tincture, Blue, pulling in different directions, embracing recklessness, lamenting the state of the world, feeling an inner existential longing, and it can be used in several contrasting ways.

The point at which I realized it was a perfect record was my first year in college. I had heard it before, casually, but a friend of mine urged me to put it on, and we sat listening to it all the way through in silence. She had just come from the campus women's center, where she'd been grilled about her sexual preference. Finding out that she was a virgin, the women leading the discussion informed her that she could not possibly know her own orientation, which she had confidently asserted was heterosexual. After the meeting, my friend was pissed off and wanted only to do one thing, which was to listen to Blue. I think seeing the depth of its resonance for her made it ring that much more loudly for me, and I put it on repeatedly that semester, finding it delicious in a way I was unaccustomed to, over and over, until my water-polo-playing roommate asked me if something was wrong.

"Only a phase," I assured him, adding under my breath: "These dark café days."

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from, Pick Up the Pieces: Excursions in Seventies Music by John Corbett, published by the University of Chicago Press © 2019. All rights reserved.

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