For most, a greasy skillet is a nuisance in the kitchen sink, an upcoming chore. But for Joni Mitchell, it’s a ripe romantic metaphor in waiting. In “My Old Man,” the second track on her fourth album, 1971’s Blue, the singer-songwriter plays the piano while singing a sunny ode to the life she shared with a “singer in the park” and “dancer in the dark” who keeps her blues at bay. She boasts of their bond, as strong as a marriage without the formality of it (“We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall”), and pays him one of the highest compliments a musician can bestow (“He’s the warmest chord I ever heard”). But the bridge of “My Old Man” offers a chilly, atonal changeup in the midst of Mitchell’s warm affection that bubbles up from a deeper, darker place than the pleasantries: “But when he’s gone, me and them lonesome blues collide/The bed’s too big, the frying pan’s too wide.”
Blue is brimming with moments like this—otherwise pedestrian snapshots that Mitchell renders eternal. It’s not enough for her to say she’s lonely when her lover leaves; her ache is visceral, one that’s felt in the space he leaves behind in a tangle of bedsheets and the skillet that makes one breakfast instead of two. When Mitchell wrote Blue, she had long since moved on from the Saskatchewan stages of her early years and the folk scene of Toronto: Then three albums deep into her career, she had built an international following on the strength of her songwriting, her cloud-grazing voice, and the intimacy she conjures when she brings both to the microphone. Her preceding album, 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon, delivered the effervescent “Big Yellow Taxi,” one of her biggest hits, along with the moody “Woodstock” and sing-along classic “The Circle Game.” She became a Laurel Canyon fixture as the ’60s roiled into the ’70s, as well as the favorite singer-songwriter of some of the world’s favorite singer-songwriters—from Graham Nash (her longtime love and likely muse for “My Old Man” and “A Case of You”) and David Crosby (who produced her debut album) to Leonard Cohen (another former flame who’s also rumored to have been the inspiration for “A Case of You”) and James Taylor, with whom she struck up a romance at the top of the decade.
Blue took shape in a moment of personal transition for Mitchell, right after the end of her relationship with Nash and just as she was falling for Taylor: She wrote her way out of an old love and into a new one, all while infusing her lyrics with the nostalgia, pain, joy, excitement, and appreciation for all that bubbled to the surface in that period. And while Blue offers a glimpse into the recesses of Mitchell’s heart at the time, it explores all love and loss, not just of the romantic sort (“Little Green” is an ode to the daughter she gave up for adoption, which she wouldn’t reveal until the ’90s). Long hailed as her magnum opus, Blue is as much a testament to her talent as it is the readiness with which she’s willing to share her most intimate truths.