CHICAGO - A Joni Mitchell album is a very private public thing, and Court and Spark (Asylum Records and Tapes) is no exception. Its lyrics and music are so personal that it could only be Joni's.
At first you may feel a little uncomfortable as you listen to Joni laying her soul bare. I was a few years ago. But if you can get over that - and beyond the gossipy guesses about which famous lover she is referring to in which song - Court and Spark is a rich and rewarding experience.
The tunes and the playing by an outstanding collection of sidemen are both excellent, but if you just want some nice romantic songs to make you forget your problems, better forget this album. When Joni strikes a chord within you, it is not usually one of dreamy romanticism. More likely she'll catch you mid-hangup and make you squirm.
Joni writes as a woman, and naturally most of her problems are with men. But although she never declares it, she is a liberated woman - self-reliant, free, thinking. And that is why her perspective is as easy for a man to get into as a woman.
She easily gets into the head of the man in "Free Man in Paris," who yearns for the days when he was a free spirit but knows he's doomed to the rat race of the music business, "stoking the star maker machinery behind the popular song."
In "People's Parties," Joni describes herself as observing the goings on "in my frightened silence thinking I don't understand." But her descriptions of the others show she understands all too well the likes of "Photo Beauty," the classic frigid hysterical beauty, or "Eddie in the Corner Thinking He's Nobody," "Jack Behind His Joker" and "Stone-Cold Grace Behind Her Fan."
In "The Same Situation," she prays for love with permanence, but that's not for her, as she admits in "Help Me," explaining, "we love our lovin' but not like we love our freedom." In "Down to You," she marks the end of another affair, observing that "everything comes and goes; pleasure moves on too early and trouble leaves too slow."
Such constant introspection would get to be a drag in any other hands than Joni's. Even when she's just sitting and waiting for her lover, who "makes friends easily" and is three hours late, she turns it into the beautiful "Car on a Hill."
"Just Like This Train" shows her reacting to the waiting room and the ride with reveries that spring from the sights and sounds she sees but are connected only in her mind, and in "Trouble Child" she is apparently in a hospital room taking stock of herself one more time. The album's title song is a symbolic parable that has the feel of an old folk song but again is an expression of Joni's personal inner struggle when confronted with ... what? It's probably just a Jesus freak, but in the song, Joni builds it up to mythic proportions.
All this sounds terribly gloomy, but there is some comic relief, and Joni's sense of humor and fun is every bit as strong as her probing of the psyche. "Raised on Robbery" rocks out to the lead guitar of Robbie Robertson in an overabundance of high spirits. Joni introduces a lady in lace sleeves, a hooker, in a Canadian bar and then lets the lady have her say in trying to do some business with what she hopes is a big spender sitting there.
And when it comes to herself, Joni sees the humor in her head problems, too. That is why she probably chose to close the album with "Twisted," by Wardell Grey and Annie Ross.
She overdubs her own voice in that one to good effect, and does so elsewhere, too. The one minor fault of the album is that some of the studio effects go a bit too far, so that if you listen closely (which is what you do to Joni Mitchell), it sometimes sounds artificial. And Joni's a natural all the way.
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