Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Court and Spark," by Joni Mitchell

I think I’ve listened to this album for days. In fact, I listened to it again just this morning. Like most others, my introduction to this highly acclaimed 1974 album was through its two hit singles, “Help Me,” and “Free Man In Paris.” And while the hits remain classics, they aren’t even the best part of Joni Mitchell’s commercial zenith, Court and Spark.

Before “Help Me” bounced onto top 40 radio in the spring of that year, Joni Mitchell was best-known as the hippie chick who wrote hits for other artists, like “
Both Sides Now,” for Judy Collins, and “Woodstock,” for Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young (and true story: Chelsea Clinton was named after Mitchell’s classic track, “Chelsea Morning,” from her 1969 album, Clouds). Mitchell’s albums up to that point were Joan Baez-influenced folk music, with Mitchell’s cold water vocals and alternately tuned acoustic guitar strumming, singing about mornings, ladies of the canyon, and feeling blue. But, never one to linger on any, one topic or sound, Mitchell craved fresh musical terrain. So with Court and Spark, she enlisted a world-class lineup of musicians to back her and embarked on an aural journey that was…Completely. Friggin’. Transcendent.

The album describes the excitement, hopes, insecurities, and doubts that come from budding romance or lack thereof.
Court and Spark builds quietly, with the hushed and conversational title track that reveals the author’s timidity and self-doubt about a fleeting, romantic near miss: “It seems like he read my mind; he saw me mistrusting and still acting kind; he saw how I worry sometimes…I worry sometimes…” Next come the hit singles, followed by the heart of the album: a quintet of dead-on relationship songs that examine the human coupling ritual in startling detail and sometimes cringe-inducing scrutiny.

Mitchell encapsulates the emotional arc of this heartfelt, introspective, and stirring album with a line from “
People’s Parties,” where she sings, “I wish I had more sense of humor, keeping all the sadness at bay - throwing the lightness on these things, and laughing it all away…laughing it all away…laughing it all away…” The album flows in said manner from beginning to end, moving from heartbreak to humor and ending on a surprisingly comedic note with a cover of “Twisted,” where Mitchell trades debauched lines with “Cheech” Marin and Tommy “Chong,” kicking around about just how mixed-up Mitchell might really be. But she’s far from mixed up, and as Q-Tip so aptly reminded us a few years back, “Joni Mitchell never lies.”

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