Court and Spark

by Mark Smith
Los Angeles Free Press
April 16, 1974

Court and Spark (Joni Mitchell). Asylum 7E-1001

Joni Mitchell stands peerless in this era of the female singer-songwriter. Her closest competitor, Laura Nyro, has been silent for over two years; Carole King's music is mired in banality and bubblegum, and Carly Simon has been doting too long on Sweet Baby James.

Only Joni has continued to expand artistically, and musical flowerings such as Blue and For the Roses are among the loveliest in pop music.

However, Joni did not cultivate the twin bouquet of Blue and For the Roses without an initial indulgence in an almost obligatory period of preciousness and misty garden verse. Her early albums, despite the felicitous touches that are in everything she does, are mostly exercises in schoolgirl lyricism, candy-colored celebrations of things like clouds, painted ponies, feathered canyons, dragonflies, and ice cream castles.

Then, in late 1971, there was Blue, a staggeringly good album that, for me, ranks with Dylan's Blonde On Blonde as a milestone in the pantheon of pop poetry. Here Joni abandons the vocal pyrotechnics and sunny gambols that disfigured her previous work and settles into the role of a globe-visiting gypsy at once optimistic and tristful over the possibilities of love.

Court and Spark, the third panel in the triptych beginning with Blue and For the Roses, is only an equivocal success (though this is a relative statement when considering an artist of Mitchell's stature).

First, the album suffers from a lack of fresh insight. Most of the songs are heavy-handed reworkings of themes that Mitchell has rendered sprightlier and more accessible in the past. "Free Man In Paris" is an anti-show-biz tune on the order of "For the Roses," but without the latter's wit and forgiving irony.

The title song, "Court and Spark," invokes a recurrent theme, Joni's love-hate romance with California and especially Los Angeles, but the lyrics get bogged down in arty references to stigmata and Christian symbolism that sent me fleeing for the lucidity and verve of "California."

The second, and most damaging, flaw of this album is the intrusion of a self-deprecation that is almost unduly harsh, loaded as it is with fatalism, panic and feelings of inadequacy.

"People's Parties" is probably the most self-critical song here, with Joni excoriating herself for her shyness and social gauchery. The lyrics abound in stinging self-reproaches like "I feel like I'm sleeping / With a weak and lazy mind / Coming to people's parties / Fumbling deaf, dumb and blind."

The contradiction of yearning for the limelight and then retreating from the hot light of fame when success arrives must have surely yielded caustic lyrics like "I wish I had more sense of humor / Keeping the sadness at bay / Throwing lightness on all of these things / Laughing it all away."

"Help Me," an AM-flavored tune and one of the album's better cuts, echoes the paradoxes of love and freedom from Blue, the proud right of independence in the exigencies of a relationship. It's a lovely little lament and, like most of Mitchell's love songs, it's up to its chorus in passionate fatalism.

"Car on a Hill" is throwaway filler, though it does contain another of Joni's withering self-references as she compares herself to a lover: "He makes friends easy / He's not like me."

The infectious rocker "Raised on Robbery" stands as my favorite cut and is, I think, illustrative of the way Joni's art has improved since "Ladies of the Canyon," and of the delightful way she has accepted the realities of rock without crippling her poetry. "Robbery," with its mixture of aggressiveness and abashed raunch, ranks with "All I Want," "Carey," "This Flight Tonight," and "You Turn Me On (I'm a Radio)" as one of the best things Mitchell has recorded.

Her version of that enduring jazz number "Twisted," which is, incidentally, far superior to the yammering exhibitionism of Bette Midler's recent interpretation, ends the album on a note of ambivalent humor and underscores the metronomic uncertainties of Mitchell's sentiments that weaken Court and Spark.

This time Joni's fretful obsession with the complications and intricacies of love has resulted in confusion, quiet panic, and dividedness, and this dreamy chaos is the undoing of this album, which represents an impasse in her career.

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