After having gone through all of 1973 without finding anything up to "album of the year" standards, we now have - in these still early weeks of 1974 - two candidates for the honor; two albums, in short, that are more satisfying and accomplished than anything released all of last year.
Earlier, we had Bob Dylan's "Planet Waves" (Asylum 7E-1003-A), a hauntingly beautiful work that is not only Dylan's best work in years but rich with the quality and purpose that enables it to sit comfortably alongside such earlier classics as "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde."
Now, we have Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark" (Asylum 7E-1001), a warmly personal, virtually flawless album that may well contain the most finely honed collection of songs and most fully realized arrangements in the singer-songwriter's distinguished career.
As always, Miss Mitchell's lyrics speak of delicacies, contradictions, frustrations and joys one encounters in the search for love and satisfaction. But her writing seems even more disciplined, her vocal phrasing more certain and her commentary more personal.
After the brilliance and emotion of such works as "Ladies of the Canyon," "Blue" and "For the Roses," it's hard to imagine any writer being able to reach inside herself again for fresh slices of insight and expression. But Miss Mitchell has done exactly that in these 10 new songs.
Part of Miss Mitchell's strength has always been her ability to explore and then honestly reveal - rather than filter, soften or glamorize - her emotions and experiences, both the pleasure and the pain. Too many artists filter experiences to make themselves appear wiser, stronger, more confident. Miss Mitchell, however, allows the vulnerability to be seen.
Thus, there are moments in "Court and Spark" - as there were in "Planet Waves" - so tender and exposed that it almost makes you wince from its degree of honesty.
Another important strength in Miss Mitchell's work is its balance. She includes both the ups and downs, a bit of the times in which things did work as well as those times in which they didn't. The pessimism and uncertainty may outweigh the optimism, but there is the lingering sense of eventual discovery of the right person.
In "Car on the Hill," Miss Mitchell speaks of the expectations and hopes raised in those early moments when everything is so right:
It always seems so righteous at the start
When there's so much laughter
When there's so much spark
When there's so much sweetness in the dark.
But there's the ever present warning about the way things change. In "Down to You," she reminds: Everything comes and goes
Pleasure moves on too early
And trouble leaves too slow.
In "Help Me," Miss Mitchell captures the temptations of romance, the expectations that are aroused even though experience has taught her to be wary and, finally, the limitations caused by each person's ultimate need"
I think I'm fallin
In love too fast
It's got me hoping for the future
And worrying about the past
Cause I've seen some hot hot blazes
Come down to smoke and ash
We love our lovin'
But not like we love our freedom.
"The Same Situation" points out the near humiliation and tenseness of awaiting someone else's decision: You've had lots of lovely women
Now you turn your gaze to me
Weighing the beauty and the imperfection.
Even though she knows the dangers ahead, she finds herself wanting so much to proceed, wanting so much for his answer to be positive. Still I sent up my prayer
Wondering where it had to go
With heaven full of astronauts
And the Lord on death row.
Each of the album's songs is toasted with some highly effective instrumental shading - a touch of brass here, a dash of extra voices there. There is also some surprise assistance including the Band's Robbie Robertson and Dr. John on the spirited rocker, "Raised on Robbery."
"Raised on Robbery" is the album's liveliest track, a sassy, provocative tune about an attempted pick-up in a hotel lounge. It's a surprising, but welcome exercise in humor. The lyrics include the invitation to step upstairs - an invitation camouflaged enough to allow it to be heard on AM radio:
I'm a pretty good cook
I'm sitting on my groceries
Come up to my kitchen
I'll show you my best recipe
The album ends with a version of "Twisted" (The only non-Mitchell song on the album) that is far from controlled - and ultimately more effective - than the version of the tune found on Bette Midler's second album. It includes a brief cameo appearance by Cheech & Chong.
Even with the enormous expectations one has for an album from someone of Miss Mitchell's artistic stature, "Court and Spark" is a major triumph, It's an honest, sensitive, highly musical package.