Album Review: Joni Mitchell: ‘Court and Spark’

by Kristi Hein
Marin Women’s News Journal
March 1, 1974

There are some people, and I am one of them, to whom the music and poetry of Joni Mitchell are a basic necessity. With each new album I go through a flexible and familiar process. When I found "Court and Spark" out in the record shop I borrowed money to buy it and hurried it home. And there I was, once again trying to read all the new words and listen at the same time. Trying to chase the familiar patterns of her older songs out of my head to make way for the new and at the same time connect them. It took several listenings to begin to sort out the overload of sensation. Then I was called away - outside, to someone else's house - and those new tunes began to float up, in bits and pieces, singing through my ears till they drove me nuts and I had to play them again and put them all together.

I've heard people call her music too quirky and unpredictable; others have said her poetry's nice but all her music is the same! She writes more specifically of the fabric of her own life than any other composer I can think of, and she weaves it into the universal fabric of her audience, of women, of people.

Let me add that I don't like all her songs, although I admire certain features of all of them. In this album "Free Man In Paris" and "People's Parties" don't really reach me. The first is too much bare complaint, almost whiney, the music only average. When she sings "I deal in dreams/And telephone screamers/Lately I wonder what I do it for," our sympathy isn't evoked as it was in her last album "For The Roses." In the title song we got a sense of the balance the artist/star must struggle for, between the inner poetic drive, and the outer clutter and insanity of fame and business games. "People's Parties" continues the same theme. It struggles but doesn't quite come off, being too rawly close to her real experience and remove from most of ours. But the tune has a nice, sad shifting pull- embodying the sense of weakness, the magnetic power of the crowd, empty star scene.

The opening song clarifies the album title; she tells of a man "dancing up a river in the dark/Looking for a woman/To court and spark"; a compelling man who brings her his religious revelation. It's a good arrangement sung with deep feeling but, for me, leaves less impact than most of the other songs here.

"Help Me" is the most lightly melodious composition - a love song, filled with the apprehension of one who's been the route, and long ago lost the innocent delight of the beginner. She is both participant and spectator - playing the part, and trying still to shake both players out of the hurtful games.

"The Same Situation" has a lovely melody of somber and impassioned piano, with strings added at the last verse. Again, we are given a view of the newest lover: "You've had lots of lovely women/Now you turn your gaze to me/Weighing the beauty and the imperfections/To see if I'm worthy." The combination of cynical experience and sentimental hope makes the song believable.

"Car on a Hill" is a perfect capsule statement of waiting, a flowing train of thought. "She said he'd be over three hours ago...It always seems so righteous at the start/When there's so much laughter/When there's so much spark." The easy rhythm, interrupted with a chorus like an anxious sigh, underlines the mood of half-impatience, half-resignation. This mood, this conflict, is indeed the prevailing theme of this album, this stage in her life. Call it maturity if you like; it's that looking back on choices made, whether freely or forced, and weighing them from the center point of the present, with the choices still to be made. Its closest examination comes in "Down To You", which shows us, again, the wordly lover, standing back to see the pattern, but painfully conscious of the worth, the guarantee still searched for. She observes,

"Everything comes and goes
Marked by lovers and styles of clothes
Things that you held high
And told yourself were true
Lost or changing as the days come down to you. "

Down to you --yourself, not the lovers, the others. This is one of the songs that only she can sing - long, winding, but complete.

"Just Like This Train" has a delicious, slow chugging rhythm. The detachment of suspended travel time leads to a humorous, what-the-hell attitude. Here are sharp observations of people being people, and of a familiar, confused state of mind (or heart?) "Jealous lovin'll make you crazy/If you can't find your goodness/Cause you've lost your heart. "

The song that could be my favorite as a song, to hear, to move to, is "Raised on Robbery". It's perfect. What can I say? It moves and it's wry and tough - really like nothing she's done before and it sure works. The woman who's down but never out - she'll cash in on the body game and outlast them all. This is one a lot of other musicians may try.

In contrast, the lyrics of "Trouble Child" are too obscure for any stranger to absorb the total message. But the slow, deep beat has the ebb-and flow, the ominous tug of the tide... "Trouble child/Breaking like the waves at Malibu. "

Coming at the end, "Twisted" is such a surprise and a real treat on the first few hearings. It's the first song she's recorded that someone else composed, but she makes it her own, with perfect mocking inflections. Now that I've heard it a lot, it's beginning to irritate me a bit. The tone is so flippant and superior - the absurdity is what makes it palatable in the long run.

The whole album is marked by the fullest range of instruments and orchestration she has yet tried; with nearly complete success. This continues the steady trend through all her albums, from single acoustic guitar, to guitar and piano; adding percussion, and woodwinds, electric guitar, horns, and finally strings. She has a remarkable sense of the right musical production for each of her songs. With all the writer/performers making their music today, she remains unique, and all her recordings prove of lasting value as they form, step by step, a mirror of the passage of her life, and our own.

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