Of all the female writers and singers post-dating Joan Baez in pop music, Joni Mitchell seems to me to have arrived at the most complete definition of herself as an artist. True, she’s not witty like Dory Previn, nor as sophisticated as Midler and Streisand, nor as stylistically far-ranging as Carole King, but few other rock musicians, male or female, have so refined personal expression that it succeeds as genuine art.
Of course, … Mitchell, along with James Taylor, has never lacked critics who explore the egocentric nature of her lyrics, to the extent that the term "singer-songwriter" has tended to fall into dispute. The objection, naturally, is that some listeners couldn’t give a damn about the intimate life of the artist, which is why the pscychodrama of John Lennon and his primal scream has offended so many critics.
Joni Mitchell isn’t like Lennon or Taylor, even though whole albums have been patently devoted to current men in her life and explanations of the relationship. She’s neither as bluntly explicit as the former, nor as neurotic as the latter. Even in her most personal revelations, we’re involved because she speaks directly to our innermost feelings. This ability to express the most private emotions in a public way, with utmost subtleties and nuances, is the stuff of real poetry, and I have little hesitation in stating that Mitchell is a major poetic force whose stature in the Seventies will have to be evaluated on a very high level indeed.
This is by way of saying that her new album, "Court and Spark," released on Elektra-Asylum, in the States, is her most mature piece of work yet, and one in which she deepens the complexities of her art, both in a lyric and musical sense, as well as taking off on her new direction.
Her lyrics have always had a strength of conviction about her role in male-female situations, even on the song "Blue," where she was at a low psychic ebb, but she seems much less optimistic now and more reconciled to the hand of fate, which is not really cynicism, but rather a certain cautiousness consequent upon being burned several times.
There’s a very poignant sense of world-weariness on "Free Man In Paris," even a touch of self-irony, as she yearns for the freedom of non-commitment in Europe but regrets that she’s implicated in "stoking the star-maker machines behind the popular song," and a system where people are "trying to get ahead, they are trying to be a friend of mine."
The title track and "People’s Parties," both on the first side, illustrate between them this struggle of uncertainty. "Court and Spark" has as its male figure a street musician, as in "For Free," who in keeping with the somewhat mediaeval imagery, sets off in pursuit; but she finds herself unable to leave "L.A., City of the Fallen Angels." It’s too late for wild abandon. Instead, she opts for the sort of role-playing that’s become familiar, the object of sexual speculation that she finds herself in the social observation of "People’s Parties," and which is amplified on the next track, "Same Situation."
If anything, besides being the album’s key song, it’s the most beautifully melodic statement here, with perhaps the most weighted and delicate lyrics she’s ever written, marred only a little by the bad rhyming of "years" and "mirrors." The title carries its own implication of her being forced to live up to a role she’s had to carry before, one in which she feels vulnerable, and which becomes explicable when she sings "like a church, like a cop, like a mother, you want me to be truthful/sometimes you turn it on me like a weapon, though, and I need your approval." To me that says more than a hundred songs about women’s lib can, the difference between that kind of militancy and Mitchell’s being that she always approaches issues from an individual’s viewpoint.
This is one of the more direct lyric passages on the album. "Down To You," a highly arranged track, is much more ambivalent, and seems to be about a sort of alienation and loneliness in which time and scenarios are shifting sands. It’s one of the few songs on this album where she employs what amounts to a narrative line. But what makes it particularly impressive is the dramatic arrangement of the verses. Strings and vocal at one point are drawn tightly arranged around dark images of a brief passion in the night, remarkably suggested but never stated through brilliantly evocative lines such as "clutching the night to you like a fig-leaf." Then strings, woodwinds and piano are introduced, with mysterious effect, the instruments chasing each other for a long restless pause before the lightened mood of the next verse.
It’s a great piece, of arranging, the work of Joni herself and Tom Scott, who also does the strings on "Same Situation." In terms of colours and moods, in fact, the arrangements here seem more sensitive than she’s ever had before. Everything is just right, from the Junior Walker-style tenor intro on "Car On A Hill" to the raunchy back-up of "Raised On Robbery," with a chugging, rock and roll guitar courtesy of Robbie Robertson. The sound is full, often bitter-sweet, never sparse.
It should be mentioned, too, that her voice, always one of the finer instruments to be heard around, seems particularly sensitized by her musical surroundings. On "Same Situation" she sings with a rare intensity, her voice heavy with feeling, slightly breathless, and with a peculiarly affecting sob almost. Engineer Henry Lewy, who’s done most of her albums, pulled a great one out of the bag.
And so to the two old tracks, "Raised on Robbery" and "Twisted." These are the two light moments on an album which is essentially reflective. As it is, one works and the other really doesn’t come off at all.
"Raised on Robbery" is an inevitable song in view of the fact that she’s shortly going out on the road with a band. It’s light-hearted, bad-ass stuff, on which she assumes the sassy stance of a good-time girl. There’s more Jr. Walker tenor, and her voice is both multi-tracked and echoplexed. It’s a contradiction to the mood of the rest of the album, but it works in itself. One’s left with the practically foregone conclusion that it will be pulled out as a single. Maybe it was even recorded as such, and then she liked it so much it had to be on the album. In that context, it’s fine.
"Twisted," the Annie Ross - Wardell Grey song, which Bette Midler has also just recorded on her new album, doesn’t sound right at all. It’s a tongue-twister, full of jazz inflections as one would suppose, and her voice simply sounds too folk-pure to handle it. Joni Mitchell was not meant to swing, not to these ears, and the inclusion in a spoken interlude of Cheech and Chong as a couple of black hipsters, makes it no more than a curiosity item. It’s particularly inappropriate because it closes the album. Maybe this is a prissy opinion, but she shouldn’t have given way to the temptation, it takes a little of the edge off what’s gone before.
Not much, though. We’re starting the year with two of the best albums that have been made in the Seventies, and both of them are on Elektra-Asylum. If Dylan’s brings a major artist up to date, "Court and Spark" strongly underlines a growing belief that Joni Mitchell should be sitting at his right hand. The cards are face up. The King and Queen, they say.