Completing 47 years this January, Joni Mitchell’s classic album Court and Spark is only three years away from celebrating a semicentennial or what is more fashionably called the Golden Jubilee. Since the songs of the album continue to testify for her creative genius, it’s worth to take a look back and understand the album’s value in her musical trajectory.
Court and Spark was the most awaited album of 1974, arriving after a year-long hiatus during which Mitchell dedicated herself entirely to the production of her upcoming album. In fact, 1973 was the only year since her poignant emergence in the music scene when she dropped her annual album release and cut down on her stage appearances.
Her artistic diligence got its due recognition once the album released, making it her most successful work since 1968’s debut Songs To A Seagull. It peaked at number one, and two in the US and Canada charts respectively and was certified double platinum, the only one in her career, by the RIAA. Moreover, the follow-up single releases of the album songs ‘Help Me’ and ‘Free Man In Paris’ successively plundered the radio stations.
So, what exactly was so enticing about the album? To answer this question, we will first need some context. After shifting her record label to Asylum in 1972, Mitchell got a free environment that welcomed all sorts of experimentations. Harnessing this opportunity, Mitchell ventured towards jazz and created unique musical expressions using the genre. Mitchell’s use of a vast range of instruments in the album was a completely new experience for the listeners who were habituated with her minimalistic deliveries. If compared with her critically acclaimed magnum opus Blue from 1971, Court and Spark is diametrically opposite.
Mitchell once again delves into her favoured themes of love and freedom, but there is a slight difference in the treatment this time. The songs though appear light at the surface, reveals the brimming tension underneath after two or three listens. The lyrics contain a strange sort of ambivalence that is both personal and detached and finds Mitchell at the junction of assurance and scepticism, sanity and insanity and even freedom and love. The last pair is the most interesting, as Mitchell views love as an antonym of liberty. Perhaps she sets out to redefine the idea of freedom and love but is greeted by doubts in the midway. The result is a beautiful confusion that is real and relatable yet strange and distant.
The album saw Mitchell’s collaborations with Henry Lewy, Wilton Felder, Tom Scott, Dave Crosby and Graham Nash. Generally, always in control of the production of her own albums, Mitchell co-produced this one with Lewy. The co-founder of the popular L.A. jazz group The Crusaders, Felder contributed some memorable basslines to the album while the Blues Brothers member Scott infused some lush saxophone. Crosby and Nash’s presence tends to be overlooked as their backing vocals in ‘A Freeman In Paris’ blends effortlessly with Mitchell’s voice.
Her varied treatment of the same topic is best witnessed in the last two songs of the album namely ‘Trouble Child’ and ‘Twisted.’ Both the songs deal with the fear of madness, but while it is grim and tragic in the first one, it’s light and comic in the Lambert Hendricks Ross’ song. Hence, she involves with the possible insanity, but from a distance. This beautiful balance and control over the subject are what makes Mitchell a standout.
“Lovers and styles of clothes come and go,” says Mitchell in ‘Down To You’ while the piano takes a slow turn. She is confused about her choices in life and doesn’t seem to know where to draw a line in love. Her uncertainty is best expressed when she says that the receiver of her affections is “a kind person and a cold person too.” The indecisiveness that governs the song doesn’t really point towards a particular being. “You settle for less than fascination, / A few drinks later you’re not so choosy,” can be both seen as self-blame as well as a critique of her lover. Undoubtedly the best love song of the album, it shines both in terms of lyrics and melody.
Among the songs that deal with the pressure of fame are ‘Free Man In Paris’ and ‘People’s Parties’. Out of the two, the first one is much better as a composition. The song was allegedly written about Mitchell’s close friend and colleague, David Geffen, a music agent and promoter. Though he is never named in the song, Mitchell tries to uphold the amount of work that goes in to create hits as well as the complex social circle of the industry: “Everybody’s in it for their own gain/ You can’t please ’em all /There’s always somebody calling you down.” The narrator while enjoying their retreat in Paris exclaims “If l had my way/I’d just walk out those doors/And wander…I was a free man in Paris/ I felt unfettered and alive.”
Be it Mitchell’s emotional release in ‘Raised and Robbery’ or the fantastical imagery in ‘Just Like a Train’ which shows the invisible chord between freedom and time, each of the tracks is unique yet joined to one another. Moreover, Mitchell’s flawless vibrato voice leaves the listeners “Laughing and crying” which according to the composer “is the same release.”