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Behind the Album: 50 Years of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Court and Spark’ Print-ready version

by Thom Donovan
American Songwriter
March 5, 2024

Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark turned 50 years old this year.

Her most daring work became her most commercially successful. After a yearlong hiatus, Court and Spark arrived in January 1974 with a new jazz-oriented vision for the Canadian singer and songwriter. The world waited eagerly to see how she'd follow Blue (1971) and For the Roses (1972), each a seminal album.

On her sixth album, Joni Mitchell is a free woman.

L.A. Woman

The character studies on Court and Spark reveal Mitchell's relationship with Los Angeles. She had retreated to the country to escape and reflect on the city's vices. When she returned, she recorded her examinations from the cabin with a jazz ensemble in the city.

The messy humanness of love threads Court and Spark.

"Help Me" follows the singer pleading for help as she falls in love with "a rambler and a gambler." Intimacy draws the couple nearer; however, neither is interested in losing their freedom.

Help me, I think I'm fallin' in love again
When I get that crazy feelin', I know I'm in trouble again
I'm in trouble 'cause you're a rambler and a gambler
And a sweet talkin' ladies' man
And you love your lovin' (lovin')
Not like you love your freedom

Prince referenced "Help Me" in "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker," singing, "And it was Joni singing, 'help me.'" It's longing for love and freedom, and Mitchell speaks to the anxieties many face in youth. While no one wants to be alone, people do fear losing themselves in suffocating relationships.

Free Man in Paris

David Geffen is the subject of "Free Man in Paris," with Mitchell chronicling the hitmaker's need to escape the pressures of his high-power entertainment job. The beauty of her songwriting is how she uses universal themes to craft stories about plush characters. The glitz of her scene in Los Angeles isn't something most people can relate to, but the desire to flee stressful work is timeless.

The way I see it, he said
You just can't win it
Everybody's in it for their own gain
You can't please 'em all

The throughline of Court and Spark is independence. Mitchell's confessional songwriting has influenced generations of female songwriters navigating male-dominated spaces. From Taylor Swift to Brandi Carlile and Olivia Rodrigo, the impact of Mitchell's lyrical honesty, bravery, and radicalism endures.

Jazz and Musical Freedom

Independence inspired more than the song's characters, and Mitchell wanted musical freedom, too. She found creative liberation in jazz, but she also found a muse.

On Court and Spark, she moved beyond the boundaries of Southern California's folk-rock musicians and connected with Tom Scott's fusion group, L.A. Express. Scott, a saxophonist, entered Mitchell's world while recording woodwind parts on For the Roses.

Drummer Russ Kunkel, who played on Blue and For the Roses, suggested Mitchell work with jazz musicians. L.A. Express drummer John Guerin and Mitchell began a relationship during the sessions. Mitchell told Rolling Stone, "He was a drummer and we courted and sparked."

The thrill of her muse inspired the title track, and Scott's ensemble added drama to the elastic rhythms of Mitchell's songwriting.

Like Bob Dylan, Mitchell shapeshifted into new territory. When she played Court and Spark for Dylan, he pretended to fall asleep. She told Rolling Stone he tried to be "cute" for label boss Geffen.

Raised on Robbery

Mitchell explores L.A.'s seedier side in "Raised on Robbery," a tale about a prostitute who approaches a man drinking alone in a hotel. The woman explains her life to the stranger, preoccupied with watching a Toronto Maple Leafs game (how Canadian of Mitchell).

Hey, honey, you've got lots of cash
Bring us round a bottle
We'll have some laughs
Gin's what I'm drinking
I was raised on robbery

The hockey man exits, and the "lady in lacy sleeves" remains alone. The woman tries to impress (I'm a good cook) amidst L.A.'s singles scene. The literal reading of "Raised on Robbery" is about a prostitute who's looking for a romantic custodian. However, "prostitution" could be Mitchell's metaphor for the bar scene - or the music scene.

"Raised on Robbery" departs from the jazzier elements of Court and Spark as a swinging 1950s-style rock 'n' roll number driven by Robbie Robertson's guitar playing.

Car on the Hill

Apart from romantic confusion, longing is another recurring theme of Court and Spark - it's in the title, too. "Car on the Hill" is Mitchell's vivid portrait of anticipating sex, and she places you in the anxious scene, waiting and hoping.

He's a real good talker. I think he's a friend
Fast tires come screaming around the bend
But there's still no buzzer. They roll on
And I'm waiting for his car on the hill

Fearless During and After Blue

Blue is a compositional and fearless masterpiece; Mitchell could have played it straight and carried on in a similar direction. While For the Roses foreshadows her jazzy portraits on Court and Spark, it remains a dividing line between the two - a tale of two halves.

Moreover, For the Roses is a record of anxiety detailing her broken relationship with James Taylor while addressing fame's bullish intrusion into privacy.

Court and Spark is the other side of broken love, with new glimpses of uncertainty, from singles bars to booty calls. Mitchell frames the danger and excitement of new love with the nimbleness of freeing jazz.

Joni Mitchell is a songwriting genius who made vulnerability radical.

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Added to Library on March 6, 2024. (659)

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