What makes an album perfect?
Maybe it's lyrics, composition, the music itself, or the emotion that it sparks. Maybe, it’s critical acclaim, the meaning that it brings, or something special yet undefinable that only the artist themselves can bring to the table. Whatever one may consider it to be, Joni Mitchell's solo 1971 album 'Blue' meets all of these requirements as a masterpiece of performance, production, and song-writing that is without a single weak spot. A decade prior, labels had still seen albums as receptacles for already popular songs. This was until the first half of the 1970s changed the music industry entirely, bringing the idea of the album as a medium to the forefront. Blue epitomises this - its songs all have a gravity of their own, yet still come together as a cohesive work of art greater than the sum of its parts. The perfect record, that, once finished, compels its listener to start it over, without hesitation.
Released over 50 years ago, the album is inspired by Mitchell's travels throughout Europe, where she left the traditional domestic comfort of Los Angeles with a one-way plane ticket to immerse herself in new experiences and pursue freedom on her own terms. Blue reflects the archetypal 'hero's journey' as she brought it to her experiences, travels, retrospective thoughts on the men in her life, her poetic observations and her relentless self examination. Perhaps as a result of this inspiration, 'Blue' gives us the sense that it was crafted to be consumed whilst in motion, immediately opening with the idea of travel, with the line, "I am on a lonely road and I am traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling". Mitchell's clear, yet haunting soprano takes us on an emotional rollercoaster throughout the album - for example, immediately after the beautifully elegiac “River”, a song about loneliness and heartbreak, comes the album's most unabashedly cheerful song, "A Case of You". In the hands of many other artists, this progression would be jarring, upsetting the integrity of the album. However with Joni, it just works.
But on top of the production and performance of the album, it's Mitchell's gift for sophisticated, beautiful melodies coupled with her lyrical language that makes Blue reach the height that it has. From the Ginsburgian imagery of Blue to the exultant "California", to the gentle yet mellow "Little Green", the album contains great range, yet still works as a cohesive whole, with diminished chords capturing the sound of nostalgia throughout the album, as various songs are interspersed with motifs from each other.
Perhaps because of its title; “Blue” has a reputation for being morose, with a certain vulnerability and weariness in Mitchell's voice making it hauntingly yet eloquently vulnerable as it captures moments of intense loss and sadness - making it a great album to cry to! But it would be a mistake to limit the album by perceiving it only in this way. It displays a vast array of emotion, part of what makes it so great, and from the opening moments of “All I Want” Mitchell is full of energy - “Alive, alive," she wants to "get up and jive.”
However all the while, she often links her lyrics back to her past, with the idea of her home in California always somewhere in the back of her mind. The album is highly personal, with many songs alluding to a handful of famous ex-lovers and musicians. And while Mitchell never tried to disguise these experiences, focusing too finely on who a song is 'about' diminishes its power and misses the point of its art - the context surrounding the album is merely a surface concern, distracting from its craft and its oceanic force of emotion.
"Blue" has always had a strong legacy of critical acclaim, winning countless accolades and repeatedly placing in the 'top albums of all time' for multiple music publications, featuring in The Rolling Stone's '500 Albums of All Time' and receiving a perfect score on Pitchfork, going on to inspire the likes of Prince, Bjork, Bob Dylan, and even Taylor Swift. As a New York Times tribute writes, "half a century later, Mitchell’s “Blue” exists in that rarefied space beyond the influential or even the canonical" as "the story of a restless young woman questioning everything — love, sex, happiness, independence, drugs, America, idealism, motherhood, rock ’n’ roll."
The wonder of Mitchell's writing is its seamless blend of personal and public, the mundane converted to the universal. Blue is a dynamic album that cannot be pinned to any specific genre - it isn't a specific album so much as a precise one, an intricate tapestry of ambiguity as her voice combines with her music in a faultless intersection of song-writing, production and performance in a way that reflects true artistry, coming together to make Blue an album that I, at least, consider to be perfect.