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17 January 2024

The paradoxical moods of Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark

Released 50 years ago, the singer’s commercial breakthrough is a masterwork of ambivalence.

By Lola Seaton

Technically speaking, the most popular album in Joni Mitchell’s sublime, defiantly variegated oeuvre is not the one for which she is now best loved. It doesn’t elicit the devotion that her fourth record, 1971’s Blue, does – but her sixth, Court and Spark, released 50 years ago, in January 1974, is Mitchell’s most commercially successful and in many ways artistically accomplished album. It reached No 2 in the charts, features her only top-ten single (“Help Me”), and was rapturously received by critics. If Blue was a breakthrough for Mitchell – an unprecedented and arguably unsurpassed exercise in self-exposure – Court and Spark was her breakout.

The album marks Mitchell’s triumphant return to Californian society after an austere spell in the Canadian wilderness where she had retreated, in the wake of Blue, to escape the fame the album had ignited and recover from the psychic toll of such incisive self-anatomisation. She lived monastically in a little stone house – “I stayed away from electricity for about a year” – emerging with the songs for her next album, For the Roses (1972). But she “couldn’t let go of LA”, as she sings on the title track of Court and Spark, and eventually returned, crashing with the impresario David Geffen, founder of Asylum Records, the label on which Mitchell would release the rest of her Seventies work.

Court and Spark was an “overt attempt at making a hit record”, as Sean Nelson observes in his monograph on the album – popular in the best, increasingly unavailable sense of the word: “a perfect example of an artist reaching out to a wide audience without pandering to it”. For this, she would need a band. Not a rock and roll band, but more flexible jazz musicians, who could adapt to her idiosyncratic tunings and off-kilter rhythms. Mitchell was hitherto a consummate solo artist known for her spare arrangements, freewheeling melodies and introspective, cerebral lyrics. Now the confessional “princess of folk music”, as Barbara Charone described her in NME, was joined by the suave jazz-fusion group the LA Express, whose drummer, John Guerin, she soon struck up a romance – courted and sparked – with.

Mitchell has described the album as “a discourse on romantic love against the backdrop of its time”, and it sounds like glamorous LA – even as its lyrics chronicle her estrangement from the scene. A gorgeous, immaculately polished and cohesive record – you can practically hear the curtain coming up as the piano leads you into the opening track – Court and Spark can buoy up a party, unlike a fair bit of Mitchell’s output. Brian Eno, who regards it as a “perfect album”, reveres its “professionalism”, especially the masterful sound-engineering of Mitchell’s long-term collaborator Henry Lewy. It has the self-possessed, mellowed sound of a work of maturity. Mitchell was 29 when she began recording it: her voice has come into its own, leaving off some of the giddier altitudes of her cascading soprano to explore the luscious terrain of her mid-range, not yet straitened by cigarettes – “smoke-cured”, as Rolling Stone put it – into the majestic husk of her late work.

“Discourse” is a revealing word choice: the lyrics, as electrifyingly intimate and sharply observed as ever, find Mitchell in a more reflective, and disaffected, mode. Blue, despite all its painfully acquired wisdom, is bright-eyed: Mitchell was “looking for something, what can it be?”. Court and Spark, by contrast, is full of songs of experience, of a world-weary, even jaded kind. They’re about repetition and evanescence – “old friends seem indifferent” and “old bonds have broken down”, as she sings on “Down to You”, where romances pass like fashions: “Everything comes and goes/Marked by lovers and styles of clothes.” “People’s Parties” is an exquisite portrait of feeling adrift among stylish guests with “passport smiles”; “Help Me” is a plea to be saved from “falling in love, again”, a word that recurs. “Again and again, the same situation/For so many years”, “The Same Situation” begins (about falling for a man who’s already “had lots of lovely women”), closing with an indelibly beautiful prayer: “Send me somebody/Who’s strong and somewhat sincere.” Why not fully sincere? She’s lowered that standard, now knowing that “Things that you held high/And told yourself were true/Lost or changing as the days come down to you”.

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Court and Spark was the apex before what Nelson calls Mitchell’s “prolonged fall from critical and popular grace” as she entered her “‘difficult’ period (1975-present)”. Jazz is a felt presence in all of Mitchell’s work, but after Court and Spark the influence would become more pervasive and experimental, and her attitude to popularity, always fraught, would become almost antagonistic. Artistically restless and ambitious – “Caught in my struggle for higher achievement/And my search for love”, she sings on “The Same Situation” – Mitchell was unwilling to put out “Formula music…/Genuine junk food for juveniles”, as she would later put it. Her next album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), dismayed critics (though it’s now regarded as a classic; Prince loved it). With the exceptions of Hejira (1976), her fabulously evocative collaboration with the bassist Jaco Pastorius, and orchestral rearrangements of early hits, her later work has rarely inspired the same affection, even among Joni-heads.

With its tension between the smooth, sumptuous sounds and discontented – at times desolate – theme, Court and Spark makes explicit a distinguishing element of Mitchell’s best work. Her music is often thought of as sad, even “depressing”, as a friend’s mother memorably described it when I was a teenager. I privately dismissed the slur as decisive proof of the unbridgeable gulf between our sensibilities. But now, listening to those magical early albums, “depressing” strikes me as not so much offensive as inaccurate, just as Court and Spark, despite its rich, jazzy instrumentation, is by no means “happy”. Rather, Mitchell’s songs are records – literally – of searches for precise expressions of mixed, often conflicting feelings, and, not for resolution exactly, but for the clarity of perspective, of seeing “Both Sides Now” (not for nothing her most famous song). Mitchell is the doyenne of ambivalence and dialectical thinking – “You lay out a case and argue with yourself about it and with no conclusions,” she explained to Melody Maker in 1970 – and the musical and emotional sophistication of her songs is found in their volte-faces, paradoxical moods and internal contradictions. They are the sound of someone turning something over, trying to ascend.

These exquisite tensions reveal not only Mitchell’s prodigious inventiveness and skill, but her playful sense of humour (just listen to the backing vocals trilling “Love is gone” on the track “Down to You”). Mitchell describes chords as feelings, and hers – “chords with a question mark in them” – provide an emotional education, teaching you to listen to the full range and complexity of your feelings, since experience doesn’t only come in major or minor keys.

We often feel subdued – like we’re “sleeping” – at a party, or want to “skate away” when the world’s gearing up for Christmas. The sound of someone thinking and feeling aloud, Mitchell’s profoundly moving songs – across her body of work – show you that you are sadder than you realised but also at times happier than you might like to think. It’s music that lines your heart. Even when it’s sad, it makes you glad – glad to feel alive.

[See also: Annie Nightingale: “I was just enthusiastic about the music!”]

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge