Retrospective review: Joni Mitchell's 'Court and Spark'

The excellent album turns 50 in January.

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There’s a great mythology about Skip James, the iconic Delta bluesman who recorded some classic numbers in the 1930s and then vanished for decades. He was rediscovered late in life and brought to Newport in the mid-‘60s to reclaim his place alongside Robert Johnson as the greatest of the acoustic blues singers.

The mythology is that James, fiercely protective of his own artistry, would change his unique style of finger-picking on the fly if he noticed another guitar player trying to study him. I believe that particular myth is true. And I believe that Joni Mitchell has a lot of Skip James in her.

Mitchell’s sixth album, Court & Spark, turns 50 this month, and listening to it today leads me to this theory. On Court & Spark, Mitchell set out to write a series of songs that no one else could sing.

OK – that’s a bit of an overstatement. Other artists have successfully recorded songs from Court & Spark. But none of them ever became big hits. And that’s important.

Joni Mitchell's Court & Sparkle is something special

To understand why, you have to look back to Laurel Canyon in the late ‘60s, at the height of the folk-rock boom that would seize the entire nation. Mitchell, a transplant from Canada, got a boost when folky godfather Tom Rush recorded a couple of her songs. (He did the same for Jackson Browne and James Taylor.) Rush didn’t score big hits with The Circle Game or Urge for Going. But Judy Collins sure did. Her cover of Both Sides Now, released before Joni’s own version, soared into the top 10 in 1968.

Two years later, Mitchell’s then-boyfriend Graham Nash, along with the rest of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, scored their biggest hit to date with a rock and roll cover of Mitchell’s contemplative Woodstock. (In an odd bit of Laurel Canyon inter-breeding, CSNY’s biggest hit prior to Woodstock was a song written for Stephen Stills’ then-girlfriend – Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. The “Judy” was Judy Collins.)

This success helped Joni, but I have no doubt it irked her as well. Tom Rush and Judy Collins were big within their small niches. And CSNY was considered a super-group. But none of them were Joni. Joni was a musical genius, capable of writing music and lyrics on a level that few could rival. Sometime in the early 1970s, I think Joni decided if anyone was going to have success with her songs in the future, it was going to be her.

The common mythology about Joni Mitchell’s career, which is largely undeniable, is that she emerged from Canada in the late '60s with a run of singer/songwriter folk albums that quickly elevated her in critical circles. By the time of Court and Spark, she had achieved commercial success as well. She was already dipping her toe into more experimental song structures and arrangements, and in the second half of the ‘70s, she devoted more and more of her artistic energy to jazz, culminating with the 1979 collaboration with Charles Mingus – entitled, simply enough, Mingus.

She would continue to experiment, bouncing around the musical map for the next several decades, culminating in 2007’s Shine, her last original album to date. She has battled significant health problems for the past decade but has begun reappearing in the public eye of late. Superfan Brandi Carlile welcomed her back to Newport in 2022. Like Skip James, she had a Newport triumph decades in the making.

That’s all true, and it’s great news for music fans. Joni Mitchell is on the shortlist of the greatest singer/songwriters of all time. Her comeback should not come as a surprise. If anyone was going to stare down a brain aneurysm, it was Joni Mitchell. She’s just that stubborn.

That’s where my new theory about Court and Spark comes from. That stubbornness. By the time the album was released, she had already created her masterpiece Blue (1971). She had begun producing herself, after deciding that David Crosby (who produced her debut in 1968) had no clue what he was doing. She had, as mentioned, seen others score big with her songs. Now it was time for Joni to score big herself.

Court and Spark would be her most commercially successful album. It would yield her two biggest hits. It was filled with songs that would become hallmarks of her legacy. It was, simply put, a work of brilliance. I think it has actually suffered in critical circles for being too successful. Success can taint an artist in critical circles. That’s why Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska often scores higher than its far more commercial twin Born in the USA in most critic polls. (No offense intended toward Nebraska – nor to Mitchell’s Blue. Both are worthy of their reps.) It’s just that Court and Spark is so damn good, and I think, as popular as it is, we still may not recognize that.

Joni only did “concept albums” if you use a fairly broad definition of the term. The concept of Court and Spark is straightforward. She lays out a challenge in the opening title track. It is unique on the album in that its main character is a man, who is referred to in the third person. The other rare instances where she sings about men are direct addresses in the second person. So, even though it begins “Love came to my door with a sleeping roll and madman’s soul…”, the emphasis remains fixed on that madman’s soul. His challenge? “He was looking for a woman to court and spark.”

Joni then proceeds to lay out ten different profiles of women who might attract that madman.

She begins with a double shot of pure pop brilliance – which would go on to become her two biggest hits. “Help Me” and “Free Man in Paris” are two sides of the same song. Musically, they begin almost identically. “Help Me” profiles a woman in love with a man who can’t commit. “You love your loving, but not you love your freedom.” “Free Man in Paris” – well, this time the woman is the one in control, at least on the surface. But she is restless, yearning for the past.

Listen to “California” from Blue and then listen to “Free Man in Paris.” You’ll get the darkness that began to emerge in Joni’s songs in the intervening years. “California” may be Joni at her sunniest, looking forward to a return to her adopted home. “Free Man in Paris” is equally up-tempo, but the sunshine is gone. She is looking back on something she is missing.

Then she launches into matching triptychs of two different types of women. “Peoples Parties,” “Same Situation,” and “Car on the Hill” are about insecure women. They are followed by “Down to You,” “Just Like This Train,” and “Raised on Robbery” - about jaded women. You get the sense that Joni Mitchell’s complex psyche harbors all of them.

Each triptych builds to a masterpiece. “Car on the Hill” is weirdly wonderful. With its fern bar sax opening and it’s swirling echoes in the middle, there’s no way it should work. But she is so attuned to this character’s desperation, and her sense of melody and rhythm is so unfaltering that she pulls it off. Then, “Raised on Robbery,” with its Robbie Robertson reverb, is an absolute pop rock classic.

The album ends on two portraits of madness, the original “Trouble Child” and the brilliantly-subversive Annie Ross/Wardell Gray composition “Twisted,” with an assist from Cheech & Chong.  It’s as if the singer is laying out all manner of options for the madman’s soul – from discontented to insecure to jaded to stone cold crazy – and saying “Here you go. Here are the ladies you might court and spark. Now choose one.”

That’s not where the stubbornness comes in. That’s just songwriting genius. The stubbornness comes from the way she writes songs on Court and Spark that simply don’t fit in other people’s mouths. Joni was always interested in syncopated rhythms, and she would explore them much more fully in her jazzier albums.

But who else writes the opening line of a pop hit “Help me I think I’m falling in love again” that simply spirals up and up until it threatens to break through the roof like the great glass Wonkavater? Who else would sing the line “The way I see it” which opens another pop song (“Free Man in Paris”) by punching the “see” syllable and then continuing to go up in tone on the “it?” Who else would drag out the middle syllable of “Elysees” on the line “I’d wander down the Champs Elysees?”

Vocal quirks like that fill Court and Spark. A lot of singers should have had success with a song like “Raised on Robbery.” It’s a rocker which shows off guitar and horns as much as the vocal. But no one has come close to the original. You try singing the opening roller-coaster verse – “He was sitting in a bar at the Empire Hotel – He was drinking for diversion, he was thinking for himself…” and you’ll see what I mean. It seems so easy when Joni does it – and it actually so hard.

Here's my best evidence. Of Joni’s ten most-covered songs, not a single one comes from Court and Spark. These ten songs have been covered by other artists almost 4,000 times. About 30 percent are covers of her most well-known song “Both Sides Now,” but still there have been hundreds and hundreds of recordings of her other classics. And none of them are on her most commercially successful album. They are scattered among Blue and Clouds and Ladies of the Canyon. None from Court and Spark.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. There is one song that would be in a tie for tenth on a covers list. “Twisted” – the one song on Court and Spark that Joni did not write.

The lovely “Circle Game,” from Ladies of the Canyon has been covered ten times more often than “Raised on Robbery.” They’re both outstanding songs. But I contend that virtually anyone can sing “Circle Game.” Only Joni can get “Raised on Robbery” just right.

I go back and forth in my own personal ranking of Joni Mitchell’s greatest albums – usually based on my mood. In a sunny mood, I listen to Ladies of the Canyon. In a darker mood, Court and Spark. If I’m seeking a dark/light balance, it’s Blue. And when I’m feeling restless, I might put on Hejira. I think it’s virtually impossible to slot the very best of her work.

But Court and Spark is the one that is turning fifty this month, and so that’s the one that has my attention right now. Listening to it with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t just marvel at how great it is. I also marvel at how Joni Mitchell set out to make sure the Judy Collinses of the world would never again ride her coattails to Billboard success – and how well she achieved just that.

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