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Court and Spark   Print

by Stephen Holden
Zoo World
March 14, 1974

COURT AND SPARK Joni Mitchell
Asylum 7E-1001

"Dragon shining with all values known
Dazzling you-keeping you from our own
Where is the lion in you to defy him
When you're this weak And this spacey. . ."


With this quotation from “Trouble Child," Joni Mitchell addresses a younger generation, identifying its post-Existential languor, the sensibility that accepts stupefaction and flirts with morbidity. Who among us can deny that the state of feeling she evokes with such challenging imagery (the pop equivalent of Sylvia Plath, or even Emily Dickinson) is not fleetingly attractive or at least a convenient posture to assume in these disillusioned times?

"So why does it come as such a shock
To know you really have no one
Only a river of changing faces
Looking for an ocean…”


Joni Mitchell has grown up. "Trouble Child" is Mitchell's tentative rebuttal to her own "Banquet," the opening and summary cut from For The Roses. Seductive almost to the point of sleaze with its muted brass chorus, "Trouble Child" is an anthem for the times, less oracular perhaps than Jackson Browne's "For Everyman," but no less trenchant. Just as important, it sums up the entire Mitchell canon - as it has evolved over the course of six albums, each one an extension of its predecessor, each an improvement, a quantum leap in emotional maturity as well as craftsmanship.

The overriding motif in all of Joni's albums, and especially the last three, has been erotic, and in Court and Spark, she has never sounded sexier. Blue, the first of her albums that could justly be called a masterpiece, introduced into her work an unprecedently intimate confessional poetry delivered in a complex musical setting which saw folk music conventions give way to a fluid melodic line, free-form on the surface but structurally coherent in its conception. The pain expressed in Blue was matched equally by the exhilaration and honesty that accompanied the breakthrough.

For The Roses went farther in the same directions, and for the first time Mitchell approached artistic conception from the standpoint of sound as well as content, overdubbing her own voice in disembodied choirs, complemented by reeds and flutes, to accentuate obsessive recurrences in the stream of consciousness. Also for the first time, Mitchell employed the theme of passionate eroticism as the focus for a vision that encompassed the world at large. Personal relationships were metaphorically destroyed by electricity, technology, pollution, in short by over-stimulation, and the only deliverance was an imagined escape into a bucolic natural utopia.

Court And Spark is an even greater album, because it doesn't present dreamy alternatives to our dilemma. Mitchell's answer, or at least her goal, is personal self-acceptance that is contingent on living in a state of resigned hopefulness. This attitude is presented in a series of deeply confessional meditations on her own romantic-erotic sophistication - meditations that result in her reluctant acceptance of a basic duality between the sexes. And in Mitchell's case the duality is exacerbated by her position of being a supreme creator who is nevertheless tormented by the desire for a lover who is stronger and wiser, who is capable of dissuading her of her belief in the impermanence of relationships. In "Just Like This Train," Mitchell sings: "I used to count lovers like railroad cars/I counted them on my side/lately I don't count on nothing/I just let things slide." The album's most sensual cut, it shows Mitchell coming to terms with the negative and possessive aspects of romantic idealism and relaxing. Other songs that deal directly with the same theme ,are "Help Me," in which Mitchell acknowledges: "We love our lovin'/but not like we love our freedom;" and "The Same Situation," this album's "Woman of Heart and Mind," which finds her "Caught in my struggle for higher achievement and my search for love/ that don't seem to cease." "The Same Situation" is the first track that Joni has ever recorded with strings, and the combination produces an emotional surge that surpasses in intensity any of her previous work.

If the rest of the songs on Court And Spark were this intense, the result might have been an album too introspective for most tastes. Happily, the deeply subjective material is balanced by other fine songs that have a more outgoing flavor. The most engaging of these is "Raised on Robbery," the hardest rocking cut Mitchell has yet attempted. "Robbery" is a tour-de-force both as a narrative (a potential prostitute tries to pick up-a man and loses him by trying too hard) and as a production. Joni's tough multi-tracked vocals are attached to an irresistible melody and underpinned by Robbie Robertson's snarling electric guitar. The album concludes brilliantly with Joni's interpretation of a Lambert-Hendricks-Ross classic, "Twisted." This song, the first she has recorded that was not self-penned, is both uproarious and terrifying in its firstperson depiction of acute schizophrenia. Unlike Bette Midler, who turned it into a camp travesty on her latest album, Mitchell executes it in a straight bop style that surpasses even Annie Ross's original version.

In the first months of 1974, David Geffen, most certainly the Diaghilev of contemporary music, has delivered an historic one-two-three injection of vitality into the musical arena with the almost simultaneous release of Carly Simon's fourth and best album, Hotcakes; Dylan's moving Planet Waves, his best since John Wesley Harding; and Mitchell's Court And Spark. Only a man whose love and understanding of musicians surpasses his legendary business acumen could have executed such a welcome coup. So hats off to David Geffen as well as to Joni Mitchell. I have no doubt that Court And Spark will be recognized as one of the finest works by a composer-performer for as long as, there is a recorded pop literature.

 

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