In 1970, Joni Mitchell had a strange dream. As she reports it, she was in an auditorium watching “a big fat woman’s tuba band.” The audience beside Joni whooped over the gleeful brass, enthralled by the music, the singers, and their elegant attire. But not Joni—she couldn’t enjoy it. In an auditorium chair, she looked down to see her body gone. In its place lay a transparent bag of human organs, a sputtering heart at its center. She was a hollow, flaccid crust of a human. As everyone else cheered, she wept, too vulnerable and too visible to smile.
Joni was no stranger to this feeling of alienation from joy. Inescapable in her 1971 opus, Blue, is a feeling of discontent—a pestering, persistent itch for something else. To leave. To change. Even through exciting excursions and romantic rendezvous, this feeling stains her joy and soils her fun. It is a blue tint over the color of her world, seeping into every man, city, and circumstance she encounters.
Blue maps Joni’s attempt to flee dissatisfaction. She is traveling on a lonely road, she explains in the album’s opener, in search of “the key to set [her] free.” In the aftermath of her breakup with folk-rock superstar Graham Nash, she journeyed through Europe and beyond. Stories of these travels make up the bulk of the LP. She sings of men and the fleeting flashes of joy they provide, but ultimately no place resonates with her enough to make her stay. She tries to outrun this nauseating displeasure with the places she travels, the things she sees, and the men she meets. But it inevitably, invariably catches up to her.
At first, she fled to Matala, Greece. There, she met the titular “Carey,” a “mean old daddy” inspired by a local chef, the real-life Cary Raditz. Immediately, their relationship was amphetaminic and explosive (literally—Joni met Carey after he accidentally set his kitchen ablaze, emerging from the ash-laden restaurant with his arm hair burned off). In Matala, Joni danced, dressed up, and drank by Cary’s side. They toasted to anyone and anything, including the “bright red Devil who [kept her] in this tourist town.” But as the dirt under her nails accumulated and her longing for a life of refinement grew, her desire for low-brow indulgence faded. She realized she had outgrown a life of “scrambling down in the street,” and with that realization, the blue was back. According to Cary Raditz, Joni played him an early version of the song, and soon thereafter, she fled once again.
“California” shows Joni traversing Europe in pursuit of something cleaner, more familiar. She visits Paris, another Greek island, and Spain, finding some light in those places, but a persistent homesickness ultimately renders every location inhospitable. The blue has reached Europe and swallowed it whole. At once, the source of her sorrow became clear. It wasn’t the cities, nor the men, that were causing her sorrow. It was her. Returning home, she pleads to the state she once ran from to “take me as I am.” She knows who she is: a woman unable to sustain joy. A woman plagued by an amorphous, incurable discontent. A woman with nowhere to go and nowhere to stay. She can only hope her home will accept her as such.
With the album’s closer, “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” we see a glimpse of the optimistic Joni that once was. She recalls the halcyon days of romance during which she argued in favor of love with Richard, a sulky, pessimistic friend who had given up on romance. She recalls criticizing him and scoffing at his claim that all romantics end up “cynical and drunk.” “Love can be so sweet,” she repeats.
But Joni was wrong. Richard went on to live an uninspiring, complacent life, with frequent nights in. He never blossomed into what Joni thought he could be, and she looks back on her lost quixoticness with a cocktail of nostalgia and embarrassment. Three years later, she considers her current position, helpless, hapless, and hopeless. Singing with the frenetic passion of a just-grounded teen, she spits, “I don’t want nobody coming over to my table / I’ve got nothing to talk to anyone about.”
She is momentarily a slave to the cynicism she thought Richard could escape. But she’s not Richard. Through this frustration, she exhales one last breath of hope. “Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away,” she sings of her time in the shadows. She closes: “Only a phase, these dark café days.” It’s the same message she gave to Richard a few years back. But this time, it’s not a reassuring fact or a prediction. It’s a distraught, desperate plea.