On first listening, Joni Mitchell‘s Court And Spark, the first truly great pop album of 1974, sounds surprisingly light; by the third or fourth listening, it reveals its underlying tensions. The lyrics lead us through concentric circles that define an almost Zen-like dilemma: The freer the writer becomes, the more unhappy she finds herself; the more she surrenders her freedom, the less willing she is to accept the resulting compromise. Joni Mitchell seems destined to remain in a state of permanent dissatisfaction — always knowing what she would like to do, always more depressed when it’s done.
Joni Mitchell has composed few songs of unambivalent feeling. Even her most minimal work suggests a need for change and skepticism about its potential results. On Court and Spark she has elevated this tendency into a theme: No thought or emotion is expressed without some equally forceful statement of its negation.
The actual opposites of Court and Spark — the thrill of courtship modulated by the fear of emotional commitment — suggest a series of choices that Mitchell touches on, passes through, and defines with astounding compression — the alternatives of love and freedom, trust and paranoia, security and rootlessness, concern for herself and for others, compromise and pursuit of perfection, and even sanity and insanity.
Her boldest fears come out in her songs about madness, the last two on the album. Her own “Trouble Child” and Lambert-Hendricks-Ross’ “Twisted” deal with it in strikingly different ways: The former is tragic, the latter is a piece of comedy with an hilarious punch line that plays on the very notion of schizophrenia. Together they flirt with insanity from a distance safe enough to show she can control even so threatening a concern.
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On For the Roses, Joni Mitchell’s best lines were: “I’m looking way out at the ocean/ Love to see that green water in motion.” Here she uses water to evoke the breaking of another’s spirit:
Some are gonna knock you Some will try to clock you It’s really hard to talk sense to you Trouble Child Breaking like the waves at Malibu.
It is a song of infinite compassion, but although she has externalized her feelings by writing about another person, the song is ultimately introspective. For that reason, the quick move into “Twisted” seems almost desperate. To me she says: Now that we’ve taken a look, let’s get out of here — there’s nothing left to do but laugh.
But if Joni Mitchell is capable of subtly edging around the notion of breakdowns, she’s unable to keep the same distance when singing about the men who dominate the album. She never seems to know where she wants to draw the line in love, or if a line exists at all. But it is precisely on the songs about love that the new lightness in her music makes so much sense.
The album achieves its ethereal and lyrical quality with even more instrumentation than any of her other recordings — including horns, strings and a full rhythm section. Blue, her best album, defined a musical style of extraordinary subtlety in which the greatest emotional effects were conveyed through the smallest shifts in nuance. On Court and Spark the music is less a reinforcement of the lyrics and more of a counterpoint to them. An album about an individual struggling with notions of freedom, it is itself freer, looser, more obvious, occasionally more raunchy, and not afraid to vary from past work. It is also sung with extraordinary beauty, from first note to last.
Still, her boldest musical stratagem is not the most successful. On “Car on the Hill” she changes tempi and inserts choral passages between verses, using voices that literally sound like ladies of the canyon. She then brings the performance back to its initial fantasy — the anticipation of waiting for a man. The cut attempts a contrast between very specific lyrics and dreamy musical interludes. Striking in its own way, it suffers from a possibly too literal conception.
“Down To You” is every bit as intricate but works much better. It’s the album’s best love song — sophisticated, subtle and complete in itself. As good as melody, vocal and arrangement are, the lyrics overshadow them, with intimations of the album’s opposites: “Everything comes and goes . . . You’re a kind person/You’re a cold person too . . .”
Simple songs like the title tune are almost as fulfilling. “Court And Spark” is about a drifter who suggests the possibility of her severing all inhibiting connections. She successfully (but depressingly) resists the temptation to make too much of a casual affair. But in the following song, “Help Me,” she reverses herself — the strength is gone and love becomes a threatening force that one copes with rather than surrenders to.
On “Free Man in Paris” and “People’s Parties” she moves from love to her other favorite subject: fame and its demands. She sees it as a further complication in the process of sorting out values. “I’m just living on nerves and feelings . . .” she sings in “People’s Parties.” The song, musically related to the delightful “You Turn Me On (I’m a Radio),” is at once her least ambitious and most affecting work.
Some of Side Two is more playful and suggests a wish to gradually surrender everything to emotion. “Raised on Robbery” is pure release: She ducks every issue for an exhilarating fantasy. But then on “Just Like This Train” she uses some fantasy imagery to define a relationship between freedom and time: “I used to count lovers like railway cars.” Now she doesn’t count anything and just lets things slide. Jealous loving makes her “crazy,” and so she now equates goodness entirely with the heart: She can’t find the one because she’s lost the other. The album’s most haunting song hangs on the deceptively simple line, “What are you gonna do about it/You’ve got no one to give your love to.”
On “People’s Parties,” Joni Mitchell sings, “Laughing and crying/You know it’s the same release.” The special beauty of Court and Spark is that it forces us to do both, and that it does so with such infinite grace.