After her first three studio albums of oddly tuned acoustic folk songs, Canadian songstress Joni Mitchell had already become a golden-haired icon of the flower power movement, spawning such cover-worthy gems as “Chelsea Morning” (actually recorded by Judy Collins before Mitchell eventually recorded it for her second album Clouds)“Both Sides Now,” (which would be covered by Neil Diamond) and “Woodstock,” and anthem for the iconic summer of love concert, which, ironically, Mitchell did not perform at, and would eventually be covered by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
By the time she was ready to record her fourth album, Mitchell was also ready to expand her sound and break out of the tiny folk box she’d been placed in. She’d also been in somewhat of a self-imposed exile in Europe after a particularly painful breakup with then boyfriend Graham Nash, during which she composed most of the songs that would appear on Blue.
The album is a raw, beautiful, vulnerable, sparsely arranged group of folksy yet Jazz-tinged tunes that pay homage to Miles Davis in both their song titles, the album cover (it all hints at Davis’ seminal Kind of Blue), and also pay homage to the Emerald Isle folk-Jazz of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. The songs traverse the emotional territory of loneliness, desperation, sorrow, infatuation, guilt, regret, anger, and obsession.
In the opener “All I Want,” a sort of flip side of the coin to Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do,” whereas Dylan is satisfied to “just be friends with you” Mitchell begins “I am on a lonely road and I am traveling” and goes on to sing “I hate you some, I love you some…all I really really want our love to do is to bring out the best in me and in you too.” In “A Case of You”, a simply arranged number with acoustic guitars and Appalachian dulcimer that deals with obsession, Mitchell sings “You’re in my blood, you’re like holy wine…I could drink a case of you.”
Even in the more upbeat numbers, the mood is deceptively joyful, such as with the lilting “Carey,” one of the few tracks with percussion, Mitchell sings in the chorus “you’re a mean old daddy, but I like you” making us aware that, despite all outward appearances, something untoward may be afoot.
Upon hearing an early copy of Blue, Mitchell’s friend Kris Kristofferson is said to have remarked “Joni, you’ve got to keep something hidden.” That’s how honest and true the music and the lyrics ring on this album. There’s not single bad song on Blue, it’s one of the few perfect albums in the rock/pop world – all meat, no filler. Mitchell has gone on to influence many artists, male and female, across many different genres, and Blue, even after some of her more progressive experiments like Heijira, or more mainstream successes like Court and Spark, will always be one of her greatest achievements because of the beauty of the arrangements and the relatability of the subject.
For years my go-to reference for Blue has been the DCC Classics gold CD release mastered by Steve Hoffman – until now! The detail, clarity, sense of space, natural ambience and presence in this high-res 192kHz/24-bit (also available in 96kHz/24-bit) remaster offered by Warner and HDtracks is astounding. Whereas the DCC release did have a certain analogue warmth and bassiness to it, no doubt due to the all tube gear employed by mastering engineer Steve Hoffman who does flat transfers, comparing it to this new release, it lacks the the clarity and the natural-sounding high end, sounding “sparkly” on the strokes of the dulcimer and acoustic guitar, and downright boomy in comparison at times. This new high-res release presents a clearer picture of the instrumentation with a little less “fatness”, it’s true, so that the lower registers of the acoustic guitars may not sound as round, and percussion on songs like “Carey” don’t hit with quite as much bump, but the punch is still there, and the highs are cleaner and airier. Joni Mitchell’s vocals ring out like a glass flute, while the piano on tracks such as “My Old Man” and “River” is full, realistic, and dynamic, like Joni was playing right in your room. Make no mistake, this is the new reference release of this already fantastically recorded album.
Nothing but the cover art in PDF format.
The Definitive Word
A magnificent heartfelt song cycle, Blue finds Mitchell breaking through her early folk constraints and hinting at some of the successes and experimentation that would define her later career. The album is beautiful, sparse, honest, and melancholic. It has never sounded better than it does here in this high-res download from HDtracks, which brings out all the purity of these acoustic tracks like never before.