Wednesday, January 17, 2024

This Day in Rock ‘n’ Roll History (Joni Mitchell Hits Commercial Peak With ‘Court and Spark’)


Jan. 17, 1974— Many fans of Joni Mitchell who knew her best as a folk music artist must have heard her sixth studio album, Court and Spark, with some astonishment. 

Her music had long depicted the conflict between love and emotional autonomy. But this new collection of 11 songs reflected her desire for creative freedom beyond musical boundaries, too, as she added new rock ‘n’ roll and jazz textures to what she called her “chords of inquiry.”

The prior year had passed without the release of a Mitchell LP, the first time this had happened since the start of her recording career. It was not a vacation, nor even an emotional withdrawal and regrouping after crushing end of a love affair, as had happened before For the Roses.

Instead, she took to trying out new sounds, and testing which musicians could help her achieve these looser, breezier rhythms. Even many of the Southern California rock musicians that Mitchell had befriended had trouble with concepts that sounded too abstract to them.

The turning point came when session musician Russ Kunkel suggested she find a jazz drummer. She found not only a jazz drummer, but an entire ensemble: Tom Scott’s L.A. Express, whose musicians played on the entire album.

The extended studio recording sessions turned out to be time well-spent. The first single from Court and Spark, “Raised on Robbery” (maybe my favorite song from the LP), benefited from the horns from LA Express and Robbie Robertson’s lead guitar licks complementing Mitchell’s breathless, saucy vocals.

But it was the follow-up, “Help Me,” which became the only record by the Canadian-born singer-songwriter to crack the Billboard “Hot 100,” peaking at #7 and helping the LP achieve platinum status.

Well, you can’t have everything. One thing Mitchell could have used a bit more of was recognition from the recording industry as a whole. 

But Court and Spark won only one Grammy out of four nominations: Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s), for “Down to You” (given to Mitchell and Tom Scott), losing out to Olivia Newton-John for Record of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and to Stevie Wonder for Album of the Year.

Much too much ink was spilled in the Seventies on Mitchell’s love life, including in relation to Court and Spark. At a half-century remove, it all feels stale and beside the point.

What matters now—and it should have then—was not her romantic, but her creative, restlessness.

Critics who charged Mitchell with being merely autobiographical and self-absorbed now had to reckon with a lyricist whose powers of observation were never more apparent, fully a match for the watercolor “The Mountain Loves the Sea” that this former art student used for the cover of her latest album.

Readers may point to other examples on the album of her growing tendency to look outward, but these are mine:

·       * “Raised on Robbery,” inspired by Mitchell witnessing a hooker attempting to pick up a man in a Toronto hotel bar who’s more focused on a hockey game;

·       * “Free Man in Paris,” informed by Mitchell’s trip to Paris, watching then-boss David Geffen of Electra-Asylum Records seeking a short respite from his normal round of “dreamers and telephone screamers”; and

·       * “People’s Parties,” in which the singer-songwriter evoked compassion for the kind of people she met at Southern Cal social gatherings who, though seemingly possessing “a lot of style,” are desperately hiding their insecurities, including the “photo beauty” who all of a sudden is “crying on someone’s knee.”

Equally remarkable were arrangements that didn’t make the final cut for Court and Spark. One track I have in mind is this extraordinary, extended “Piano Suite” of “Down to You / Court and Spark /Car on a Hill,” which Mitchell finally released on Archives Vol. 3: The Asylum Years, 1972-1975, this past fall.

In a few years, Bob Dylan would evoke those cursed “to know and feel too much within,” a group that certainly included Mitchell. An eighth grader when Court and Spark was released, I read its printed lyrics without grasping the struggle it took to put them to paper, or to sing them before thousands.

I was even less able to comprehend her album-to-album evolution, the complex chords she wove around her delicate, intricate lyrics, or the dizzying variety in tones displayed in this career pinnacle. All of that could only come from a musician who, though analytical and introspective, also delighted in fun and collaboration. 

But somehow, I still managed to absorb enough of what she was trying to convey to know Mitchell was something special.

Within only a couple of years, Mitchell had become so enamored of jazz arrangements that, with Mingus (named for the jazz innovator with whom she collaborated before his death from cancer), she had more or less left folk and rock—really, the pop mainstream of the time.

As with another contemporary idiosyncratic female singer-songwriter, Laura Nyro, radio stations were not ready to give Mitchell much airtime for such jazz experimentation.

Mitchell didn’t care; she was impervious to the moans of record-company execs for more commercial fare, or record buyers who kept yelling in concert for past hits. As she told Cameron Crowe in a 1979 Rolling Stone interview:

“You have two options. You can stay the same and protect the formula that gave you your initial success. They’re going to crucify you for staying the same. If you change, they’re going to crucify you for changing. But staying the same is boring. And change is interesting. So of the two options, I’d rather be crucified for changing.”

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