It’s that time of year.
Trees stand stark naked beneath a still sky. We zip our down jackets all the way up. Hot chocolate makes sense again. There are certain hauntings we invite in, the blue hours we so often complain about. There is a quiet loneliness here in the North we all know in our own way, one we somehow crave year after year -- we stay and we live with winter.
Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue album is not about Minnesota and its appeal should not be limited to a single season. However, in the same way a true Minnesotan can feel the chill of February on the hottest summer day, Blue cartwheels along warm oceanic breezes and dances through every season, though it never truly separates from the aching melody of a northern wind.
I’ve been revisiting Blue a lot lately and talking about it with some of the best Twin Cities musicians I know. I love how dumbfounded we all are by Mitchell’s masterful songwriting, on this album in particular. What can you say when, really, you should just close your eyes, tilt your head back, and it wash over you like freezing water?
So why does Blue make so much sense in Minnesota?
While conducting causal research along the streets of south Minneapolis, I’ve been highly entertained by the single-phoneme guttural responses to the question of “What makes Joni Mitchell’s Blue album so great?” Reliably eloquent people just shake their heads and gesture erratically with their arms.
“Uhg” groans the man in the green Packers hat. “I mean, jeez ...” a guy with tortoise-shell glasses pontificates. “Give me a minute to collect my thoughts on that” a blond-bobbed woman requests as her eyes lift to gaze far off into the distance, a steaming coffee in hand. You hear a lot of "justs," "phfffffs," and "I don’t even knows."
Back in my living room, I’m sprawled on an IKEA rug in the middle of the floor as Blue spins off, off, and away on my roommate’s record player. The initial warmth of the dulcimer tones and heartbeat pulses of “All I Want” invite us into the first track. Our course is set as Joni begins: “I am on a lonely road and I am traveling, traveling, traveling, traveling / Looking for something, what can it be?” We’re swept away.
Renowned for her purity of tone and melodic adventurousness, Joni sings about hating you, loving you, and wondering if you’d like to dance -- incredibly blunt, cathartic lyrics to sing along to in the land of passive aggression and hot dish. Again and again, Mitchell returns to northern lights, frozen rivers, icicles, ice skates, and the color blue.
"The cover alone is the coldest image I have ever seen," notes local musician Hannah Hebl (aka Hemma). "The clean white linens and fancy French cologne are all felt, inhaled, imagined through the open heart of a prairie woman and the result is breathtaking."
Even a song like “Carey," a sunshining arrangement, is a celebration of temporality in the setting of a beachy tourist town. Mitchell sings of “not talking of farewells," but all the while, departure is eminent, since “this place is really not my home”.
The idea of home is fluid over the course of this album -- though if it’s anywhere, it’s California. Even so, there is a sonic frost that permeates the edges of each tune. In “A Case of You," maybe one of the most wistfully intimate love songs of all time, Mitchell sings that “I could drink a case of you, darling, and still be on my feet." It's a roundabout compliment, the likes of which we’ve perfected over generations here in the Upper Midwest.
For many, “River” is an unparalleled secular holiday tune with a shameless nostalgia that is appropriate all year long. The song is timeless in spirit, and sure to leave you feeling like you’re living your life from inside an otherworldly snow globe.
Haley Bonar, who covered “River” on her Only Xmas EP back in 2008, talks about embracing Blue in her early 20s. “I worked at a [Twin Cities] café and my manager played it all the time, so I got to rediscover it," she says.
“I love the sentiment of ["River"]," she explains, adding that it's not her favorite song on the album, but it's one of the first covers she released. "There are traces of the holidays in it, but I love that it’s a love song. It’s very sad and sweet, kind of like looking at a photo book”.
John Munson of the New Standards considers Blue to be “one of the finest works of art ever." In thinking about ow the album makes special sense to Minnesotans, he opines, “That it has to do with her Canadian roots ... Joni aches in a desolated wintry way that perhaps only northerners can truly understand."
Munson also points to the significance of the dulcimer in the first notes of the first song, as well as throughout the album. He characterizes the Scandinavian instrument as “heavy and rich with the northern sense of displacement and discomfort."
Blue doesn’t spare the listener from the elements. The album moves between macro- and micro- environments, oscillating between dancers in the dark and frying pans with a dexterity that shatters the warm tissue of the heart like a plate of glass. In 1979, in conversation with Cameron Crowe for Rolling Stone, Mitchell herself explained:
"The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either."
It is exactly that vulnerability that we admire in Blue. As the temperatures continue to drop and we pull on double layers of wool socks and tightly wrap our faces in knitted scarves, Joni speaks our hearts. She divulges the most reticent truths and stands as bare as the icy Mississippi River's tree line in December.
Blue won’t make the winter days go any faster. Blue does not make the sun warmer or bring “the best baby I ever had” back home again. Blue will give voice to the time, space, and often sorrow inherent to the North. It will carry you to the Pacific coast or to a café in Paris for a brief moment, before plunging back into the indigo of melancholy with a quiet fearlessness.
It is exactly this sort of begrudging optimism, gravity, and grit that perfectly parallels why I love Minnesota so much. It is those qualities that keep me here, and keep me coming back.
And it’s why Blue makes so much sense in Minnesota.