JONI MITCHELL – ” Court And Spark ” Classic Albums

Posted: November 8, 2020 in CLASSIC ALBUMS, MUSIC
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The year 1973 came and went without Joni Mitchell releasing a record, the first year she’d skipped since her debut five years earlier, and when 1974 arrived, January brought “Court and Spark”, adorned by a sophisticated sonic sensibility that would define her career from that moment forward. Joni Mitchell was an emblem of female empowerment, Mitchell has always retained publishing rights to her music and has produced, often solely, her own albums. Though primarily considered a pop artist, the songs she wrote carried a signature folk rock sound with a jazz influence. Mitchell’s success as a solo songwriter and singer in the 1970s music scene certainly gets us going.

As a woman, as an artist, Mitchell engages with and pushes against the norms of the industry, all the while retaining a singular sound and reputation.

“Court and Spark” the 1974 album, Mitchell’s sixth album release,  a concentrated effort for a hit record. This analysis pushes Mitchell toward the pop star image, but the album retains her signature influences from rock, including guest performers, as well as folk and jazz; the electric guitar features just as strongly as wind instruments. Court and Spark reached second spot in the United States in March of 1974, eventually receiving double-platinum certification. “Help Me,” “Free Man in Paris” and “Raised on Robbery” all became hit singles.

The construction of the album’s songs is complicated—and sounds it. Contoured, carefully interlocked arrangements provide inviting frames into which sober, pretty poetry nestles, masking sharp lyrical edges that emerge upon deeper listening. Backed by Tom Scott’s L.A. Express, the popular “Help Me” shows how it’s done, cloaking a heady contemplation of love and loneliness in an alluring sway. Mitchell scatters memorable refrains across its lyrical structure, with repeating bookends in each verse of, “Help me/I think I’m falling” to one side, and variations on “But not like we love our freedom” on the other.

Though over 40 years old, this album is surprisingly relevant today. For anyone sequestered in their home but still trying to navigate the online dating scene, “Help Me” resonates. The narrator frets about falling in love too quickly, while “hoping for the future/And worrying about the past.” We cannot help but think of the future and how good it will be—to wander outside, to sit in a bar, to hug someone—but we’ll never get to live in our future, post-COVID-19, the way we lived in our past. The catchy chorus finishes with “We love our lovin’/But not like we love our freedom,” which in this crisis I interpret as the collective freedom we will achieve when the spread of disease slows, which will happen faster if we refrain from breaking quarantine to date.

What lies between is decorated tastefully by the cool ring of Joe Sample’s electric piano and soft, punctuating inlays of Larry Carlton’s electric guitar. Engaging and plush, the arrangement ascends into a billowing bridge capped by an affirming “Didn’t it feel good,” wherein Mitchell’s singing entrances with percussive traces amid a shifting-yet-certain rhythm. Busy and finicky as it may be, the assembly has a natural flow and hits the ear beautifully, right down to the bass drum taps placed curiously high in the mix during its fadeout. “Help Me” would prove the biggest hit of her career, reaching as high as No#7 on the singles chart.

In relation to “Same Situation” Mitchell’s lyrics call for “somebody/Who’s strong and somewhat sincere,” suggesting a much more nuanced, if embittered, plea for partnership. The perennial search for love in music does not always call to mind the sacrifices we anticipate in the continual bargaining of partnership. The chorus ends with “Caught in my struggle for higher achievements/And my search for love,” echoing the dichotomy faced by countless women who have given up careers and other personal achievements in exchange for a partner and family in the decades before and since Court and Spark. In Mitchell’s lyrics, the female voice and figure receives a more nuanced, complicated, and bittersweet appraisal than one is accustomed to in comparable records of the time.

This also applies to “Raised on Robbery,” which is sonically different than most of the album. The opening bars are played on the electric guitar. Mitchell’s voice, supported by back-up vocalists, cuts in, in a style reminiscent of the vocalists of World War II-era songs like Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” or “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” I’ll describe it as sharp, harmonized vocals with understated instrumentals in the background. In Mitchell’s case, this style shortly gives way to a more contemporary style. Meanwhile, the lyrics quickly subvert the upbeat music with the sad tale of a woman struggling to make rent after a male relation drinks away the money that was supposed to help them survive. If anything, the fast-paced music, which adopts a jazz-folk feel, is indicative of the woman’s resolve in light of her unfortunate circumstances. Far more direct in every way is the crowd-pleasing “Raised on Robbery,” which lightens the album’s tone with its fun, funny yarn-spinning atop a propulsive groove for which Robbie Robertson’s electric guitar etchings are an ideal complement.

The craft on display in the song, “Free Man in Paris,” is equally noteworthy. Opening with a segue that sounds like an extension of “Help Me” (the album is among the most seamless ever assembled), “Free Man in Paris” establishes a complex yet airy structure richly decorated by the electric guitars of Carlton and Jose Feliciano, with background vocals from David Crosby and Graham Nash as polished support. It’s catchy and agreeable—the tribute to her friend David Geffen would chart as high as #22—and offers insight into Mitchell’s process. Its cadence never quite settles down, and she keeps it off-kilter on purpose, as when she jams “unfettered” into a line whose meter it doesn’t quite match, prioritizing the specific term over a concession to any number of two-syllable words that would have fit more comfortably.

The album is a deeply personal experience, a dance into the confessional softened by artful twists of observation. The subject matter aligns with sparse piano melodies like the one beneath the clear-eyed musing on romance “Same Situation.” The horn-dressed “Car on a Hill” is peppered with small flourishes, many of them murky, as it makes a haunting choral ascent for which Wayne Perkins’ electric guitar provides a sharp edge. Mitchell inhabits each turn with a worldly, matter-of-fact vocal approach, bringing a gently rendered urgency to the title track as she tells a story that purposefully avoids closure by song’s end.

One of Mitchell’s gifts is for lyrics that seem to be part of a stream of consciousness until they hit a punchline that makes them coalesce. “People’s Parties” is a dense 2:15, loaded with ideas and images like the clever reduction of its characters to owners of “passport smiles.” Evocative imaginings spill from the supple “Just Like This Train,” an easygoing jazz reminiscence on lost love that is equal parts sweetness and bite. “Down to You” is like a lengthy exhale. A mesmerizing contemplation of isolation summarized in the lyric “Everything comes and goes/Marked by lovers and styles of clothes,” it is a gloomy, utterly lovely piece of work, with climactic moments delivered in a tempo akin to sobbing. Tracing a lustrous piano melody across 5 ½ minutes, it resonates on multiple levels. It would earn an award the following year for Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist, to mark the first of Mitchell’s nine Grammy wins.

The album’s closes by changing directions, in a pair of songs that share mental infirmity as a core concept. The first of them, “Trouble Child,” is a slinky shimmer punctuated by Chuck Findley’s cool trumpeting, John Guerin’s slender drum rattle and a mood-imposing electric guitar line from Dennis Budimir, which combine to create a ruminative flow that aligns with the tone and structure of the rest of the record. Less characteristic of the collection, and arguably anything in Mitchell’s catalogue, is a sprightly cover of the 1952 Annie Ross/Wardell Gray song “Twisted,” whose amusing personality (which includes a cameo from Cheech and Chong) and springy vocalese structure send off the record with a lively bounce.

The album was received warmly by critics and the marketplace, where it reached as high as #2 on the album chart, and would in the long term rank as the best-selling record in Mitchell’s catalogue. It also served as a signpost, highlighting an artist intent on following her muse wherever it might lead, which soon would entail far more experimental paths. As much as it sounds on its surface like an easy-listening jazz-pop record, Court and Spark was a significant pivot point, angling toward a future in which its creator would champion experimentation, and defy expectation.

May we all strive to achieve Joni Mitchell’s level of career power and lyrical grace.

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