Counterbalance No. 159: Joni Mitchell's 'Court and Spark'

by Jason and Eric Klinger Mendelsohn
January 17, 2014

The 159th most acclaimed album of all time is flirting around. Flirting and flirting, hurting too. This week's Counterbalance loves its lovin', but not like it loves its freedom.

Mendelsohn: Confession time, Klinger. I put off listening to Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark to the very last minute. I couldn't psych myself up enough to spend a couple of days listening to Mitchell bare her soul. Turns out I was fretting for nothing. Court and Spark is a much more upbeat affair, with actual drums and everything. Its poppy, peppy, and downright pretty in some places.

Klinger: Yes, I recall you being a bit unnerved by Blue, Joni's 1971 confessional masterpiece, and although I still don't fully understand your skittishness, I suppose I am glad your trepidations were for naught this time around.

Mendelsohn: At this point in the Great List, we are starting to see the return of several artists we already had the chance to talk about. The albums from repeat placers seem to be in one of two categories - either the early work that was good but not good enough, or the later work where the artist took a different direction. Court and Spark sees Mitchell stepping away from the straight folk stylings to incorporate some heavy jazz influence. Was this enough to make the critics sit up and take notice of Mitchell again? Or is this just a case of the Mom-rock contingent in the Great List exerting some sway over the proceedings?

Klinger: Mendelsohn, you know I find terms like "Mom-rock" reductive and inaccurate, and besides that doesn't really apply to Joni Mitchell, even if she is a woman (and a mom - I refer you to the Blue song "Little Green" for more information there). Mitchell has always struck me as something of a cynic, which could explain why so many of her songs take place in bars - "Raised on Robbery" and "Down to You" being two good examples from this album. She's clearly not one much for placating people, and I'd say that was as attractive to critics in the 1970s as any of her forays into jazz. Frankly, I think she intimidated critics to the point where they couldn't dismiss her obvious songwriting skills with the "pretty good for a chick" rubric they've applied too often throughout pop history.

But I'm curious here as to why you enjoy Court and Spark so much more than you liked Blue. Is it because Blue is a little too up-close-and personal? Does Blue's sparse instrumentation make everything too real for you, where the more lush Court and Spark lets you create a little more distance? Personally, I'm more of a fan of Blue's naked intimacy, but I also understand that she couldn't make a career out of facing down her demons.

Mendelsohn: Oh yeah, "Little Green". I had been trying to block that one out. Please excuse that little foot-in-mouth moment. For those just joining us, "Little Green", off of Mitchell's Blue, is about giving her daughter up for adoption. Depressing, I know. The naked intimacy of Blue isn't something I look for when pulling music off the shelf. Court and Spark is a little less depressing and that's a good enough place for me to start.

In fact, for the most part, Court and Spark manages to avoid the introspection and soul searching of Blue. Instead, we find an artist much more comfortable in her own skin, willing to explore different material and vary the musical styles from song to song. Also, did I mention drums? The overall lack of a backing beat on Blue made me much more uncomfortable than anything Mitchell was actually singing about. Court and Spark is full of movement. The poppy "Help Me" is a great example, as well as the funk-driven excursion in "Raised on Robbery".

That said, I stand behind my reductive and inaccurate assertions. Court and Spark is mostly Mom-rock. Moms are people too, Klinger, they have complex feelings and like to spend time in bars. But giving it more thought, those assertions are probably due to the correlation between the fact that we have seen very little rock from the female perspective and the albums we have talked about happen to be music that my mom likes. Not Blue, but she did enjoy Carole King's Tapestry and I imagine she probably enjoys the easy-listening, jazz-inflected stylings of Court and Spark.

I can understand the intimidation factor for some critics, but aside from Mitchell and King (and maybe Prince), the female perspective just does not make much of an appearance on the Great List. You want to open that can of worms, Klinger?

Klinger: What's to open? Women are terribly underrepresented here within the critical pantheon in the same way that they're terribly underrepresented in society. It still all comes down to power - when women aren't given the same breaks, and have their critic-worthy art recognized by the cultural gatekeepers (and there was a time, believe it or not, when rock critics most certainly did serve in that capacity), then songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith and (coming soon to the Great List) Chrissie Hynde are made to stand for 51% of the population in as "women rockers". I doubt many 1970s music journalists would have wanted to admit it, but it's your whole male privilege thing there in a nutshell.

I suspect that part of the reason why Joni Mitchell seems so cranky so much of the time is because she keeps getting marginalized into the women's music ghetto. So it seems like the fairest thing to do is talk about Court and Spark the same way we would talk about, say, a Neil Young album. On its own merits and within the larger contexts of what was going on in her career and the music at the time. And by the mid-'70s, it seemed Mitchell was like a lot of artists who were beginning to get more comfortable - the kind of comfort that sanded down some of their rougher edges. So as beautiful as Court and Spark can be (the lilting arrangements on "Down to You" are particularly pleasant), I can't help feeling like it's all a bit plush for my tastes.

Mendelsohn: I like the plush nature of the record. It's like a velour jumper. Yes, you look stupid wearing it these days, but damn is it comfortable. And it was probably pretty sexy back in the 1970s, as opposed to laughable by today's standards, which leave very little to the imagination. I think that's a pretty good analogy for the record. It can still be comfortable and sexy even if it's a little dated.

Maybe I've feeling a little less cynical than you this week, but I don't get the cranky vibe from Mitchell. She can be sharp and poignant but at its heart, Court and Spark is a mediation on the nature of love. Loving other people, while learning to love yourself. It doesn't seem that Mitchell had much luck with loving other people as it seems she liked to pick up street buskers and barflies. To each their own I guess. On the plus side, it did provide a lot of great material for this record. On a completely unrelated note - did you know Cheech and Chong were on this record?

Klinger: Oh yeah, their little cameo in the middle of her cover of "Twisted", the old Annie Ross vocalese number. Sure. I'm not sure I get what they were doing there, but yes. Court and Spark is also full of fusiony jazz guys like Larry Carlton and Joe Sample, which helps explain a lot. And I know this is a tired journalism trope, but if you Google "joni mitchell cranky", you get 1.7 million hits. She's pretty well known as a prickly pear these days, even if you don't get that much of that from the 1974 version. Instead you get tough-minded Joni, who seems like she'd be a lot of fun to go have a drink with. And apparently a lot of people felt the same way back then, since Court and Spark was both a huge critical and commercial success.

And while I think Court and Spark suffers greatly in comparison to Blue, it also has some pretty terrific moments, most notably "Free Man in Paris", her sympathetic portrait of music mogul David Geffen. The song captures the humanity of the guy, who in the mid-'70s was kind of the SoCal musician's industry buddy (hence the dual nature of the name Asylum, the label he started), and it's married to one of her best, most idiosyncratic melodies. That song alone has helped keep me coming back to this album throughout this week of intensive listening.

Mendelsohn: If you Google "joni mitchell puppy", you get 7.1 million hits. None of them are relevant to this conversation, I just wanted to put that out there. Despite the fact that there are no songs about puppies on Court and Spark, the record holds its own, and personally, I think the album is a step up from Blue. It puts Mitchell's unique voice and songwriting ability into sharper focus by making it just a tad bit more accessible, showing why Mitchell was a critic favorite and why her 1970s oeuvre will be seen a few more times on the Great List.

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