Album of the Week, October 14: Court and Spark by Joni Mitchell

RBHSJDIDBadgeCanadian singer-songwriter Roberta Joan Anderson started as a coffeehouse folkie. After growing up with a love of music and art in Alberta and Saskatchewan, she moved to Toronto’s thriving Yorkville folk scene. She met American folk singer Chuck Mitchell; the two began performing together, then married and moved to New York. After they broke up, she began a promising career writing and singing confessional and naturalistic folk songs. Her music became steadily more complex over the course of five albums. In 1974 she merged her previous experiences with her love of  jazz and recorded her most popular and powerful album.

Title Court and Spark
Act Joni Mitchell
Label Asylum Release Date  1/17/74
Producer Joni Mitchell
U.S. Chart  #2 U.K. Chart  #14
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Court and Spark
  2. Help Me [#7]
  3. Free Man In Paris [#22]
  4. People’s Parties
  5. The Same Situation
  6. Car On A Hill
  7. Down to You
  8. Just Like This Train
  9. Raised on Robbery [#65]
  10. Trouble Child
  11. Twisted

With ten marvelous originals and one rare cover (Twisted), Court and Spark is Mitchell’s strongest set. She builds on the bare brilliance of Blue and the half-pop/half-observational For the Roses, and crafts more complex, elliptical lyrics. The music is by turns meditative and ebullient, showcasing a spectrum of styles she had not previously revealed. Each song is a story, sometimes complete, sometimes baffling but intriguing.

The title track, People’s Parties, and The Same Situation are wonderful vignettes. Each provides a quick glimpse into life from a different angle, blending the detached voice of an observer with the keen spirit of a singer either complicit in or victimized by the events she narrates. Free Man In Paris famously  tells the story of friend David Geffen and almost prophetically ponders what counts as success in the world of pop music. Car On A Hill and Just Like This Train use very different travel metaphors to look at relationships, the former all anticipation and the latter pulled forward by a merciless engine.

The final three tracks form a curious triptych. Raised On Robbery is the straightforward song of a barfly trying to land tonight’s companion. Witty, wry, and cutting, it’s a perfect character sketch and one of Mitchell’s finest personas in song. Trouble Child is a more personal and obscure take on fame and success, creating the album’s most serious moment. That segues directly into the delightfully goofy cover of Annie Ross’ Twisted, a breath of fresh air after the deep ponderings but also a strange coda to an album of personal brilliance. The highlight of the disc is its second track, Help Me, at once a pop classic worthy of Carole King and a uniquely quirky bit of Mitchell lyricism. Like Court and Spark, the song was Mitchell’s most successful, her only pop Top 10 and #1 for a week on the Adult Contemporary chart.

It’s somewhat ironic that her biggest seller heralded the end of her pop success. After this, Mitchell moved more deeply into jazz experimentation, less structured songs, and less clearly narrative lyrics. Her high, clear voice, still powerful on Court and Spark, grew husky with decades of cigarettes, although still a powerful and complex instrument. She still releases fascinating music and has an enviable number of strong albums, but nothing has matched the perfect chemistry of artistry and commercial appeal that is her sixth album. Named album of the year on many polls in 1974, one of the 20 best albums ever by Rolling Stone, and regularly listed as one of the finest and most influential, it’s a high water mark that few artists achieve.

FURTHER LISTENING: Joni Mitchell’s lyrical constructions and musical bravery place her in the highest echelon of pop musicians, and her fusion of musical styles is powerful. Almost every album has something wonderful to offer. Her dazzling career breaks into distinct periods, and each disc is worth a quick mention.

THE FOLK YEARS – starting as a coffee house folky and with a debut produced by David Crosby, she launched with literate, fascinating songs against deceptively simple backdrops, growing in skill (that guitar work! the piano nuance!) and confidence with each outing.

  • Song to a Seagull (1968) – also known as Joni Mitchell due to an early printing error, 50% brilliance, 50% intriguing hints of things to come.
  • Clouds (1969) – one of her finest albums, a huge leap in lyrics and musical diversity, confident and daring.
  • Ladies of the Canyon (1970) – a half step backward, but mostly to try new things; the addition of regular piano elements broadens her palette nicely.
  • Blue (1971) – another of the very best, one of the finest confessional singer-songwriter albums of all time and proof that you probably do NOT want to wind up the subject of a Joni Mitchell song.
  • For the Roses (1972) – interlocking tales of strength and want, a perfect set-up for the unexpected glory of Court and Spark.

THE JAZZ YEARS – with a new freedom and confidence, Mitchell went her own way, pursuing world beats and jazz structures while still turning out marvelous pop gems here and there.

  • The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) – overwhelmed by its own ambition, it’s a mixed bag with some great songs and some failed experiments that lead to more interesting songs on later discs.
  • Hejira (1976) – the best of the pack, a travelogue of Mitchell’s life at the time; something of a jazz-tinged Blue, it’s one of her best albums.
  • Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977) – if this had been edited down to a single album, it might have been brilliant; instead it’s charming, sprawling, and sometimes misguided.
  • Mingus (1979) – a collaboration with the titular jazz bassist (who died before the project was completed), a fascinating disc that isn’t my cup of tea but shows off her unique fusion nicely.

THE GEFFEN YEARS – Old friend David Geffen launched a new label in 1980, bringing in Mitchell and an amazing roster of established stars (Donna Summer, Elton John, Neil Young, John Lennon); sadly most of them were neglected at best as the newer talents on the label began to dominate. Mitchell definitely suffered from this trend and turned out her weakest series of discs.

  • Wild Things Run Fast (1982) – a decent set of songs that charts no new territory; the highlights are fun but not remarkable.
  • Dog Eat Dog (1985) – woof. Easily the worst album in the Joni Mitchell catalog.
  • Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm (1988) – some fun collaborations (Peter Gabriel, Don Henley, Tom Petty, Billy Idol (really!)) – bring back the spark; not up to early standards, but worthwhile.
  • Night Ride Home (1991) – a wonderful return to form that set the stage for the rest of her later work, consistent and impressive.

THE LATER YEARS – Mitchell has turned out albums less and less frequently, in part due to fragile health; each effort is lovely in its own way.

  • Turbulent Indigo (1994) – Her finest since Hejira, a fully realized set of alt-pop songs that are uniquely Joni.
  • Taming the Tiger (1998) – a decent follow-up that works well but isn’t quite as inspired; the 1991-1998 trio is some of her best work overall, however, and the lyrics are amazing.
  • Both Sides Now (2000) – mostly Mitchell’s version of pop-jazz standards, nice smoky arrangements; the reworking of the title track is haunting, one of the best artist-revisiting-her-own-work tracks ever.
  • Travelogue (2002) – orchestral versions of the Joni Mitchell catalogue; stretched over two discs, it wears thin, but it’s a fun journey for fans.
  • Shine (2007) – nothing new here, but it’s solid Joni, fitting nicely with her previous trio of later career albums.

COMPILATIONS – Never really a singles artist, Mitchell waited until 1996 to compile her own favorites onto Hits and Misses. Between them they do a serviceable job of reflecting the best of her work, with some notable exceptions. The live album Miles of Aisles, recorded on the Court and Spark tour with LA Express — the jazz band that backed her up during the second half of the 70s — is a solid overview of her earlier work, often in fun new settings.

For my money, if you’re serious about Joni Mitchell you need at least five of her full albums: Court and Spark, Blue, Hejira, Clouds, and Turbulent Indigo.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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