Anniversaries of album releases usually do not prompt me to comment, other than a personal “My ghod, has it been that long already?” Part of it has to do with my ongoing assessments of important albums—the fact of the work means far more than when it first appeared. But lately I’ve been worrying at a musical issue which has brought distinct periods into focus and after listening to some of the commentary on the 50th Anniversary of Joni Mitchell’s Blue some thoughts have finally come into focus.
So. Blue is fifty. To my embarrassment (somewhat) I was largely unaware of this album the year it came out. I was not then particularly invested in Joni Mitchell. Folk music, broadly speaking, was not of much interest to me. There was overlap, certainly: Crosby, Still, Nash & Young, Tom Rush, and Eric Anderson all impinged by way of other forms, and created a gestalt in which a wide array of artists were “known” even if not necessarily actively listened to.
Joni Mitchell always felt like an outlier.
Given that my predilections, as time has shown, were jazz and classical, most of the contemporary music I embraced turned out to be progressive rock and, initially, fusion. The majority of my listening fell into those genres, but I have always been open to other things, and so in my library, over the years, can be found a fairly eclectic range which today includes a considerable (expected) classical and classic jazz selection, but also electronica, pop, and, yes, some folk. The combination of folk, pop, and jazz brought me, for better or worse, finally and fully to Joni Mitchell through her Court & Spark album, which was the point where she began to fully experiment with jazz.
That album was the second one after Blue. For The Roses, the between album, brought in the musicians that formed her ensemble for Court & Spark, though the jazz flirtation was not quite as obvious.
It was, however, a bend in the river. There were other albums around that time that signaled a change in the music, as in the culture, and it is that bend of which I wish to speak. because once around it, the music was different, even as it followed the same forms and even trajectory.
I used to accept the general wisdom that I will always privilege the music that first impacted me and meant something to me and that the perceived “lessening” of newer music was entirely an artifact of nostalgic comparison. That music written and recorded in 1979 would never resonate with me the way something a decade earlier does.
But I’ve come to realize that this is entirely confined to what we call Popular Music, which as the Seventies progressed absorbed what a decade earlier was revolutionary music. We knew then that what Frank Zappa or Country Joe and the Fish or the first three albums of both Santana and Chicago were doing was sharply different from Popular Music, which was represented by people like Fabian or Bobby Sherman or, more problematically, the Monkees (whose trajectory was the opposite of the other two groups mentioned, in that as the four principle members took more and more control over their music their product became more and more experimental). What divided these examples then was the same thing that came to enervate the music as a whole as we grew closer to the Eighties. Basically, the Form was preserved and repurposed, like fashion, to meet the less profound tastes of a wider audience. Not even the content was necessarily changed, only the sincerity of the art, and that is something harder to pin down and define.
It could be said that the culture changed along with it. The music had always, in certain quarters, followed (and in some cases led) what was happening more broadly. In the case of the rock scene, the Vietnam War ended. The music that had been anthemic to both the counter-culture and the antiwar movement transformed in the anthems of the party that followed perceived victory. In essence, it didn’t mean the same thing anymore. And, consequently, it floundered.
So newer forms took center-stage and left much in a kind of no-man’s land of more or less empty musical rehash.
I finally realized that, while certainly nostalgia plays a part in this, given sufficient exposure it can be detected in other genres of which one has no such sentimental attachment. With exceptions—and there are always exceptions—every revolutionary period can be seen to precede a period where form is all and substance less important.
As I noted earlier, there were certain albums that marked the shift, the “change of season”, if you will. I always considered the Moody Blues’ Seventh Sojourn such an album. There was a elegiac quality to it, a kind of farewell to what had gone before. An ending. The Moody Blues broke up afterward and the members embarked on a number of solo projects. When they reformed, good as Octave was in many ways, it was different from everything they had done before. Something was missing—or added. Easy to dismiss it by saying they had “gone commercial” but that doesn’t explain it all. What they had to make music about was changed and perhaps they didn’t know how to codify it.
Court & Spark was that kind of an album. Altogether lighter, less profound, less…vulnerable.
The difference could not be more obvious when compared to the earlier Blue, which was, for want of a better word, Naked.
Let me get this out of the way now: I think Blue is brilliant. Powerful. As good as Mitchell had been up to that point, everything about her art came together in Blue. Subject matter, lyric phrasing, melody, everything. You cannot listen to it without recognizing something important happened here. Even if you don’t like it particularly. In that, the spareness of the recording allowed it to be more than at a glance it seemed capable of being.
She made it through one more album and experienced a kind of breakdown. She had spent of herself too freely, perhaps, invested in the music (and in life—perhaps the one requires the other) a bit too deeply. After a hiatus, coming out of it, she reinvented herself and we have the Next Phase Joni Mitchell.
Blue was the river, just before the bend.
Once I finally really “heard” Joni Mitchell, I went back to immerse in the rest, and I found Mitchell to be one of those artists for whom Form is simply one tool in the box. The important thing is the substance expressed. Unlike those who somehow misunderstood what was happening—to the culture, the business, themselves—she had no problem adapting not only her presentation but the delivery of her message to the changing zeitgeist. She understood that music—any art—is a lived thing, and a reduction to any single aspect of it can strip it of any useful power.
Joni Mitchell’s single guiding principle, if you will, was to use music to say “This is how I feel.” She has always been careful to make sure the music matched the emotion and to be honest about everything it contained.
Which led to a number of reinventions, as one might call them.
You can tell when an artist gets it “right.” Fifty years on, we’re still talking about it—because we’re still listening to it.