Court and Spark

Joni Mitchell

1974: Asylum 1001-2 EUR 253 002

  1. Court and Spark
  2. Help Me
  3. Free Man in Paris
  4. People’s Parties
  5. Same Situation
  6. Car on a Hill
  7. Down to You
  8. Just Like This Train
  9. Raised on Robbery
  10. Trouble Child
  11. Twisted

It’s because of this album that I occasionally gauge other albums in terms of number of razor blades: Annie Lennox’s Bare, for example, is probably only a 2-razor-blader, because it does contain hope as well as grief, but Mark Isham’s music for Mrs Soffel is probably a 4-blader and mercifully I can’t think of any of the majorly depressing ones off the top of my head just now….

For me, anyway, this is probably Mitchell’s masterpiece (so far…she does keep pulling rabbits out of a surprising arsenal of new chapeaux when everyone least expects it), possibly a perfect album. Unfortunately—and fortunately—“perfection” isn’t absolute with Joni’s artistry: Hejira’s perfect too, in a different definition of the term—it’s purer as a concept album, but Court and Spark is stronger as a gallery of perfect pictures.

I’m no professional when it comes to assessing music (except to say as an out-of-shape pianist that a certain piece is a knuckle-breaker), so any comment I make here should be considered strictly amateur in the truest sense of that word (“devotee, admirer”).

There isn’t a bit of Court and Spark that I don’t love, and plenty of it immobilizes me with fascination and a kind of sympathetic awe. From start to finish it’s sonically intimate but lyrically and musically traverses uncharted depths with profound understatement. All that and a few laughs on the way, including the entire closing track, “Twisted,” which includes a brief cameo appearance by Cheech & Chong just to make things even more of a mood-lightener by the power of absurdity.

Because I do love all of this album so much, it’s hard to identify specific reactions or even focus on individual tracks because they all contribute to the whole so well—not as viscerally so as Hejira’s songs do, but in such a way that the recordings are somewhat disorienting when heard out of this context: the songs themselves don’t, at least not necessarily, as we’ve seen when Joni herself covered “Just Like This Train” on Travelogue (although “Trouble Child” was less of a departure). I suspect that this is one of those “you either love it or you don’t get it” works of art, because after all it’s so personal in its immediacy that one might well be put off by first impressions if the “voice” didn’t happen to hit the right spot in that person at that moment.

It did for me; when I first heard Court and Spark it was the late 1980s, I was just beginning to recover from being hit with Hepatitis A (the generic and non-permanent variety of hepatitis, that is, not the truly serious one, although it could have killed me if I’d not been so well cared for by my friend Keith). (As an aside, but a good one, my other form of therapy during that time was in watching the Trinity Broadcast Network (TBN) on TV: I remember switching to it one day just in time to see Jan Crouch clutching a wireless microphone in one nail-hyperbolized hand and a lace-encrusted Bible in the other, screaming “The BLOOOOOD of the LAAAYUMB! The BLOOOOOD of the LAAAYUMB!!!!!!” It may just be a coincidence—I hit the TV remote’s Off button by reflex within a few seconds—but my real recovery did start just about then.)

Right, so, back to Joni and Court and Spark. I would say “enough about me,” but actually there’s a little more about me first that’s relevant, and that is that as I absorbed this fascinating and moving album while straggling through a pretty low moment in my own life I would pass the time playing what I privately referred to as Suicide Solitaire: this was a modified version of a solitaire game called Canfield, but I played it with two decks of cards to double the supply but without expanding the 9-column field layout. The name was a nod to my vaguely-held belief (in that low patch) that when I won I’d kill myself, the likelihood of winning being extremely low given the circumstances and my will to live being probably stronger than that when push came to shove but my mood and health being very bleak at the time. I don’t think I did win a single game then, but when the morbid mood has taken me in years since then I’ve often won, and I recognize that fact with some reflection.

So on to the songs, if not in order: “Free Man In Paris” seems to be indisputably about David Geffen, but its implications and applicability extend far beyond that individual context. For me the song has always gilded Paris with an extra fascination (as The Hissing of Summer Lawns’s “In France They Kiss On Main Street”) never has done) of contemporararily relevant enchantment and subjective delight. The song’s not about Paris, but the connotations helped me point myself towards Paris for years and eventually get there (at least fleetingly, but that’s another story). The presence of Crosby, Stills, & Nash on the chorus vocals is icing on the cake.

The title track begins the album on an edgy and intimate footing that gives no hint of what will follow and certainly doesn’t suggest anything as musically bright (if lyrically shadowy) as the pair of “Help Me” and “Free Man In Paris,” and for me it almost gets lost in the wake of those two…if the tone didn’t return to that moody darkness with “People’s Parties” and “The Same Situation” this would seem to be a redheaded stepchild (as the saying goes), but instead the flanking tracks cast a qualifying light over those two and maintain an atmosphere of troubled introspection. From there on out, only “Raised On Robbery” and the closing track (and, to a degree, “Just Like This Train”) provide definite relief from the brooding.

“People’s Parties” has long fascinated me. Mitchell’s describing parties of a kind now long past, or perhaps I just don’t mix with the right people (an arguable point), but that distancing aspect does nothing to diminish the identifying power of her scenes here which draw one in so arrestingly and intimately. When you hear it you KNOW Jack and Grace and the others, you are THERE and feeling Mitchell’s awkward juxtaposition personally. Her focus shifts between three points—the partygoers, You (whoever that may be), and herself—and the shifts happen so smoothly that the perspectives sometimes overlap, adding to the ambiguity and depth. “The Same Situation” is in the same style but with a slightly lighter tone.

The album’s gently devastating emotional weight is formed by songs such as “The Same Situation,” which has at its base a one-on-one relationship contention that brings into play much bigger personal issues, all in a very brief context. “Down To You” is the Blue moment, as it were, everything coming down to the intimacy of piano and voice musing over psychological (and philosophical) aspects of the behavior of an intimé, albeit with brief elements of grander production than Blue saw (harp, b-vox, horn, etc.); for me it conveys a sense of super-late-night commentary (which the lyrics do establish) and an ongoing debate that remains unresolved…and the music delivers it that way.

A quick note added in 2015: I really need to revisit my assessment of this album, because 10 years later I have a broader perspective on it, having lived longer and heard more of Mitchell’s work (both as compositions and performances, whether by her or as covers). For starters I definitely need to bump “Raised on Robbery” up into the picture instead of merely nodding at it wearily as a bit of levity; it’s actually a very fun song in all regards.