I used to work in a cafe, a forty-five-minute walk from where I live. Three times a week, sometimes more, I would walk there in the morning and back in the afternoon, winding down residential streets, usually sweaty, sometimes late. I would listen to podcasts, or sometimes sets that people had uploaded to Soundcloud, but more often than not I would listen to Blue.
Blue is widely regarded as one of the best albums ever made. Its cover is Joni Mitchell’s face, saturated by a deep blue, turning away like she’s overcome. Its songs are deceptively simple—usually dulcimer, piano, guitar, and her clear, high voice, instantly recognizable, bewitching, sliding between extremes, always on the verge of a wail.
When I still worked at the cafe, Blue became this oasis of calm and freedom, a stretch of time before other people were awake, when all my time was my own. I would leave my house at 6:45 on those mornings, and as the months wore by it got darker and darker by the time I slammed the door behind me (our front door is notoriously weak). Since then, when I listen to Blue, certain stretches of road appear in front of me, of their own accord. In “California,” when Joni sings, “I’m going to see folks I dig / I’m going to kiss a sunset pig,” I am in the middle of that walk, passing by a beautiful row of Victorian houses bracketing a park that was never open that early. I could always glimpse lights just being switched on in those houses, brief flutters of movement as I passed.
When I hear “All I Want,” the first song on Blue, I’m back on the first minute of the walk, just down my road, trying to stuff my keys into my jacket pocket, wondering why I haven’t opted for the bus; almost no one is out on my street—a rarity—except for a lone jogger or two. Joni sings, “I want to knit you a sweater / I want to write you a love letter / I want to make you feel better / I want to make you feel free.” Each of these warring ambitions—to be in love, to be free—twists and warps her pursuit of the others, leading to these intensely vulnerable songs crammed full of detail. And yet there’s something conversational about it, like she was talking to a friend and a guitarist and a drummer happened to start up in the background. The conversation threads throughout the rest of the album, an undercurrent of every mewling chorus or dulcimer interlude.
I went to New York last November and found myself listening to Blue as I walked across various bridges. The day I got caught in the rain on the way to meet J—, the song in my ears was “A Case of You,” Joni’s voice modulating upwards on the you in the chorus. Soon after that I started to feel an aversion to hearing it when I wasn’t walking, as though an album about various journeys can’t be listened to without moving.
In a Rolling Stone interview soon after the album came out, Joni said she felt “like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.” That makes two of us. Part of Blue’s appeal is the way that each song testifies to a life in flux; Joni describes the period of writing it as a nomadic sojourn, living in caves and tiny hostels, going where she wanted. That desire for freedom got under my skin. Every time I listened to it I would think I want to live like her, and then change absolutely nothing about my life. Now there’s not much I can do, no matter how hard I try.
When lockdown came around, Blue found its way back into my playlists without my noticing. I’ve stopped listening to itin the morning, when I usually go walking; it’s started to feel like an evening album. I play it when I sit on the roof-balcony hybrid attached to my house, pretending to read or drinking a solitary beer. The roof I sit on isn’t beautiful but it has a nice view: the neighbors have a majestic, deep green tree in their backyard that towers above the weird consortium of houses around us, none of which match in tone or height. I watch the leaves sway and listen to “Little Green,” a somber, sweet song about Joni’s daughter, whom she gave up for adoption. “Just a little green,” she sings, “like the color when spring is born.”
As I’ve found out recently, there’s no dearth of Joni Mitchell videos on YouTube. In one of my favorites, she sings “A Case of You” in London, a dulcimer flat on her lap, the lighting a little inadequate. Her voice is both huskier and sweeter in real life, and her eyes are closed, as though she’s somewhere else. Hearing her croon in my ears is a reassurance that I’m still moving in some direction too, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
— Sanjana Varghese
London, day 62