Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
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. – Joni Mitchell, 1979
As many a person has pointed out, Blue works really good if you’re really low. These five girls came up to me once in a bar and said, “Joni, before there was Prozac, there was you.” – Joni Mitchell, 1996
The platinum standard for confessional singer-songwriter albums, Joni Mitchell’s Blue has been held in the highest esteem since its release in 1971. To this day, listeners discover and connect with the album’s intimacy and its lyrical truth – they may not know what it’s like to vacation in Crete, or to be involved with Graham Nash or James Taylor, but they know what it means when “the bed’s too big / The frying pan’s too wide” or how it feels when someone’s “in my blood like holy wine / You taste so bitter and so sweet.” That’s because, as her songs got more specific, they got more universal.
“Joni, save something for yourself,” said Kris Kristofferson after hearing Blue for the first time. Later, Mitchell said, “It was hard for him to look at it. There was an odd sense of respect, like it was a Diane Arbus photo book or something. I’ve heard some of the writing called that,and yet I find it hard to relate to those images. These are not strange people in apartment buildings. These are all of us.”
Mitchell showed the world all the sides of her – nervous, resentful, joyous, lost, restless, vulnerable, always holding out hope for romance. She called it “probably the purest emotional record I will ever make.” Substitute anyone for I, and you’ll get few dissents. And while Rolling Stone called it one of the greatest female albums of all time, Blue speaks to males just as clearly – in fact, eight of the ten covers that follow were by men. Listen to how each artist takes each song in and turns it back out.
Tim Curry – All I Want (Joni Mitchell cover)
1978’s Read My Lips was Tim Curry’s debut album, and he led off side two with a cover of “All I Want,” Mitchell’s Blue opener. Curry brings that big beautiful baritone to bear on the song, almost but not quite flattening its questing spirit. It’s impossible to hear it and not imagine Dr. Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show taking much delight in roaring, “I wanna shampoo ya!”
Dave Douglas – My Old Man (Joni Mitchell cover)
As Mitchell moved further into jazz over the years, more jazz musicians delved into her back catalog and found untold riches there. Here’s one of them, excavated by Dave Douglas (as were two other Joni songs, “Roses Blue” and “The Same Situation”) on 1997’s Moving Portrait. It’s aptly named, as a listen to the “My Old Man” therein will reveal.
cuzhero – Little Green (Joni Mitchell cover)
In his Rolling Stone review of Blue, Timothy Crouse says of the song “Little Green,” “The pretty, ‘poetic’ lyric is dressed up in such cryptic references that it passeth all understanding.” Today we know that the song is about Mitchell giving up her daughter (then named Kelly, as in kelly green) for adoption, and the lyrics maketh a lot more sense to us than they did to Crouse. This cover is by a YouTube artist called cuzhero, about whom distressingly little is known beyond the fact that he’s covered almost three dozen Joni Mitchell songs, and he’s really really good at it.
Universal Honey – Carey (Joni Mitchell cover)
“Oh, that was a mean song,” Mitchell said about “Carey,” the song about Cary Raditz, the red-headed chef she met in Matala, Crete (he also appears in the second verse of “California”). “He was very mean to me, but he was a character and I liked him anyway…. I’m a double Scorpio, you know. Supposedly that makes me a stinger. I think I’ve pulled a lot of punches, considering what the stars endowed me with.” Universal Honey’s cover, from the Canadian indie tribute album Back to the Garden, adds some power-pop sweetness to the song – it’s no accident that the last words we hear are “I like you” – and whatever meanness Mitchell had imbued the song with disappears in laughs and toasts to nothing.
Dubistry – Blue (Joni Mitchell cover)
“Dubistry pushes barriers,” the band announces on their Bandcamp page. “Drawing on lovers rock, punk and jazz, Dubistry combines club music and art music, island sounds and city streets, into brash, warm songs for dancing – and making revolution. The combinations feel organic and fresh, yet never too far from their musical roots.” They certainly show this on their cover of “Blue,” dressing Mitchell’s title track in fine Jamaican attire and getting the song under your skin, like a tattoo.
Aish – California (Joni Mitchell cover)
San Francisco’s Aish brings an art-pop dynamic to “California” that turns the song into a whole other listening experience. Layering and arranging electronic sounds and vocals into a sheet of music with a four-figure thread count, he turns the song into a landscape that matches the wide variety its title character holds within its boundaries.
Nazareth – This Flight Tonight (Joni Mitchell cover)
It doesn’t get as much US airplay these days as their next single does, but Nazareth’s cover of “This Flight Tonight” outperformed their cover of “Love Hurts” on the UK, Austrian, and German charts. “Obviously we wanted to make it as far away from Joni as we possibly could,” said vocalist Dan McCafferty, “’cause you could imagine how it would sound with me trying to sound like Joni Mitchell!” Bassist Pete Agnew said “we only wanted to do cover versions on the basis that if you can change it enough, it becomes yours. If you can’t change it, don’t do it.” Did Nazareth succeed in making it theirs? Put it this way: Mitchell started a concert in London by saying, “I’d like to open with a Nazareth song.”
Billy Squier – River (Joni Mitchell cover)
You might not picture Billy Squier being one to sing Joni Mitchell lyrics. And, in a way, you’d be right. On his 1998 album Happy Blue, Squier reworks “River,” taking away its Christmas vibe, changing the words, turning it into his own confession (“me I’m not so quiet, I’m restless and I’m mean / I won’t let you know I’m bleedin’, that I’m crawlin’ on my knees”). On this, the most-covered song on Blue, Squier’s approach is one that chooses to reinvigorate the song, rather than preserve it.
Per Frost – A Case of You (Joni Mitchell cover)
Prince’s cover of “A Case of You” may be the best known and most intensely loved of Blue covers; for this piece, I wanted to see if I could find another one further out of the spotlight that was worth discovering. I found it in Per Chr. Frost, a Danish musician who recorded it for last year’s release The Calling. Sounding a bit like 21st-century Dylan, Frost adds roughness to the song’s poignance, not to mention some slow slide guitar that adds a welcome piece of natural blues.
Sandbloom – The Last Time I Saw Richard (Joni Mitchell cover)
Blue‘s album-closing “The Last Time I Saw Richard” was about Chuck Mitchell, Joni’s ex-husband. If the song is true to life, he fell back after the divorce while Joni continued to move forward, refusing to resign herself to cynicism in a dark cafe. Kevin Sandbloom, who uses his surname as his stage name, recorded a full-album cover of Blue; his version of “Richard” is a good demonstration of how he gets the feel of the album right even as he makes changes to the melodies within. (You can get the rest of Sandbloom’s Still Blue on Bandcamp.)
We’ve got plenty of Joni Mitchell covers in our archives. Special thanks to jonimitchell.com for including a page that catalogs the thousands of Joni Mitchell covers and introduced me to several of the songs heard here.