Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” At 50

joni mitchell hejira

In 1974, Joni Mitchell took a giant step forward in her musical journey with the release of Court and Spark. This was her sixth album and ultimately, her biggest hit project. Previous albums like Blue and For The Roses showcased her as a deeply poetic singer-songwriter shaped by the ’60s ethos – but with an edge uniquely her own.

Court and Spark (which she co-produced) presented a sleeker, jazzier Joni. Love and relationships were still on her mind, but by this time, she was a lot more cynical. The warm, halcyon days of Laurel Canyon had given way to hanging out with Hollywood stars, the L.A. “scene” and increasing money and success (which she was never comfortable with).

She was also eager to show off her lighter side. She’d been somewhat pigeonholed as an earnest artist tormented by romantic entanglements. Yet, in an interview with Cameron Crowe, Mitchell proclaimed her love of fun: “I love to dance, I’m a rowdy, I’m a good timer.”

Initially, Court and Spark’s lead single was “Raised On Robbery,” a raucous tale of a hooker unsuccessfully trying to lure a john in a hotel bar. It featured the jazzy horns of Tom Scott’s L.A. Express and a guitar assist from Robbie Robertson.

The top jazz players of ’70s L.A. were in full force throughout the album, from the aforementioned Tom Scott to guitarist Larry Carlton, drummer John Guerin, and keyboardist Joe Sample. Their influence deepened Mitchell’s already complex instrumentation.

Just 30 at the time of the album’s January ’74 release, relationships still intrigued her. The title track recounts a fascinating drifter (rumored to have been an obsessed fan) and reflects the fading hippie idealism of the ’60s (“..so he buried the coins he made in People’s Park…”). “Same Situation” and “Car On A Hill” capture the timeless frustration of trying to connect with a non-committal lover. The radio-friendly “Help Me” (her only Top 10 hit) reveals the thrill of new love, tempered by the realization that this one would likely flame out, too (“’Cause I’ve seen some hot hot blazes/ Come down to smoke and ash”).

Freedom is a constant theme throughout the album. From “Free Man In Paris” to the couple who both love their independence in “Help Me,” to the title track in which Joni “couldn’t let go of L.A.” to follow her alluring new lover.

Her restless urge to travel, later the centerpiece of 1976’s Hejira, makes an appearance. “Just Like This Train” has Joni downing “a bottle of German wine” as she rides the rails, musing on yet another problematic coupling. In it, she takes a sly dig at former lover Leonard Cohen, anticipating the future pleasure of “watching your hairline recede, my vain darling.”

Her discomfort with the glossy, cocaine-fueled 70s “scene” is reflected in three tracks. “People’s Parties” finds Joni at an A-list Hollywood party with Jack Nicholson, his then-girlfriend Anjelica Huston, and a Dutch supermodel of the time making a spectacle (“Photo beauty gets attention, and her eye paint’s running down..”).

The epic “Down To You” is the symbolic Morning After as the sunrise reveals a stranger in your bed, a hangover, and an existential ache with no quick fix. Finally, “Trouble Child” introduces the wise-beyond-his-years savant kept medicated so as not to challenge anyone’s good time during this decadent period.

After this heavy ride, Joni closes out the album with “Twisted,” a wry cover of a 1952 song mocking psychoanalysis (something she’d undergone). Cheech and Chong are featured in a spoken-word bit. Mitchell had wanted to put the song on For The Roses, but it wasn’t a good fit; for Court, it makes for a quirky summation of the ups, downs, and general weirdness of Joni’s ’70s world.

Mitchell’s exploration of jazz would continue through 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira in ’76, and Mingus in ’79. But it was Court and Spark that first melded that cool vibe with Joni’s warm, deeply human observations. And you could dance to it.

-Cindy Grogan

Photo: Joni Mitchell (public domain)

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5 comments on “Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” At 50

  1. Court And Spark is one of my favorite albums of all time. Everything in it works and flows perfectly. It’s a strong nominee (of which I have an inner circle) for what I call my “desert island” album. (“if you were stranded on a desert island with one studio album, which one would it be?”) Your piece has captures the strength and irresistible nature of the LP so well. Bravo!!!

  2. Her exploration in jazz also included 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter – why no mention of this at the end of the article?

  3. Court and Spark brings back so many special, both sad and intimate memories in my life. 1974, god I wish I could go back.

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