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Dizzying Himalayan heights of emotive excellence
on 30 September 2011
By the time of this, her fourth album, Joni had reached a new balance: starting out with the all acoustic guitar and vocals of Song To A Seagull and Clouds, she'd then added drum, bass, percussion and quite a bit of piano on Ladies Of The Canyon. On this recording she adds dulcimer to her arsenal. As well as expanded sonic textures, increasing depth, subtlety and intensity in her songwriting, this album also breaks the flow of Joni cover art, opting instead for a stark but highly appropriate close up portrait. The cover really does catch the mood of rapt, intense emotional introspection.
Appalachian dulcimer figures as prominently as piano on Blue, eclipsing guitar, with 'All I Want', 'Carey', 'California', and 'Case Of You' all played on this unusual instrument, which sounds a little like a strummed zither. 'Little Green' and 'This Flight Tonight' are the only 'normal' guitar numbers, and given Joni's penchant for unusual tunings, even they aren't so ordinary. 'This Flight Tonight' features a lovely low open tuning. With the whole guitar tuned pretty low (the bottom E is down at Ab), the resulting drone gives the song a very particular feel.
Whilst this is undoubtedly a "quintessential confessional singer/songwriter album", as noted by many a music critic, it achieves that effect by (or in spite of?) being quite different to anything by the other big names of the genre (James Taylor, Jackson Brown, Carole King, Carly Simon, etc.), all of whose music is far more conventional in respect of melody and harmony. Whilst I like quite a bit by these other artists (especially Taylor), I have to say that I think Joni is several notches higher up the artistic achievement scale.
One cautionary note regarding this album: as great as it undoubtedly is, it's amongst the hardest to take in one sitting (from the golden run of records starting with her debut and running somewhere into the latter part of the seventies), simply because of the raw emotional intensity of it. I find it's the more intensely confessional piano ballads that, whilst individually magnificent, can, if taken together, become somewhat cloying. The tendency towards maudlin self-doubt and criticism that began to be apparent on 'For Free', is not just aired here more freely, but is studied, dissected, even concentrated, as in the intense closer 'The Last Time I Saw Richard'.
However 'Little Green' exemplifies, for me, the best and most easily digested of this intensity. Amongst the greatest tracks on an already very strong album, it was written for her daughter, given away when Joni herself was very young - "Child with a child pretending" she sings. It simply destroys me every time I hear it. Only a heart of stone could fail to be touched. And it packs as big a punch musically as emotionally, with her shimmering harp like guitar, vocal lines that wind enigmatically through distinctive melodies, all seemingly effortlessly and perfectly delivered.
A guitar style like no-one else's, songs that are melodically and harmonically like no others, played with pristine glass-like clarity, and topped off with a voice that seems capable of going wherever it chooses. A stark stunner of an album that is totally essential.