"The creative process is a mystery. Inspiration is a mystery," Joni Mitchell said in 1973, while the rehearsals for what was to be the following year's Court And Spark album were underway. "I think that as long as you still have questions, the child questions, the muse has got to be there. You throw a question up to the muse and maybe they drop something back on you."
At that point Mitchell did not know just how successful Court And Spark would prove to be. It would become her biggest selling album up to that point, and the mother of three US hit singles. But in achieving this mainstream breakthrough, Mitchell broke with her own musical history. Both her folk beginnings and the confessional tone she adopted on Blue are only there in snatches. Even the cynical songwriting of Court And Spark's immediate predecessor, For The Roses, is now leavened by humour and humanity.
Court And Spark foretells the eclecticism of Mitchell's later 70s albums, such as Hejira and Mingus, but here Mitchell tempers her wilder instincts into songs that successfully ride the mid-70s AOR boom. It's no surprise that it remains one of Mitchell's most well-loved albums, as this track-by-track guide to every song on the record demonstrates.
'Court And Spark' Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album
Court And Spark
This intimate, piano-led beginning to Court And Spark almost harks back to a world Mitchell was about to leave behind for good: the prairie lily on the cover of her second album, Clouds; the ladies of the canyon, the circle games. Throughout the song Court And Spark, as it builds with the gradual inclusion of more and more musicians, the signs are clear that Mitchell is changing direction with her music.
Working with engineer Henry Levy, Mitchell and her band of extremely experienced jazz-oriented Los Angeles musicians created intricate textures that are nimble when needed, and dense when the lyrics demand it. "It took me six years to find a band that inflamed me to the degree that I wanted to work with them on a project," Mitchell has said of her musicians on Court And Spark, many of whom played together under the name LA Express.
The final line of the song, "I couldn't let go of LA, city of the fallen angels," sets out a theme of the rest of Court And Spark: Mitchell's relationship with the city, and its celebrity culture, dominates the record. And on the album's title track, Mitchell gives us an insight into how, sometimes, she dearly wished it didn't.
Along with Big Yellow Taxi and Woodstock, Help Me is one of the best Joni Mitchell songs. Released as a single, it sold very well, reaching No.7 in the US. It even got namechecked by Prince on The Ballad Of Dorothy Parker, from his landmark 1987 album, Sign O' The Times, and sampled by hip-hop group PM Dawn, on their 1993 hit, Looking Through Patient Eyes.
Help Me's success, and longevity, is unsurprising. It is one of Mitchell's most memorable mainstream songs, perfectly executed, the refrain of "Help me, I think I'm falling" brilliantly sung by Mitchell as if she were, indeed, tumbling down and down. A solo acoustic demo of the song, issued on the Archives, Vol.3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975) box set, finds Mitchell experimenting with her voicing as she works towards the layered self-harmonies of the final recorded version.
Asked in the wake of Court And Spark's release and Help Me's sales how she felt about recognition, Mitchell said in 1974, "I had no idea that I would be this successful, especially since I came to folk music when it was already dying."
Free Man In Paris
"I wrote that in Paris for [Asylum label boss] David Geffen, taking a lot of it from the things he said," Mitchell said in 2019, when discussing the song Free Man In Paris. "Another song about show business and the pressures. He didn't like it at the time. He begged me to take it off the record. I think he felt uncomfortable being shown in that light."
Geffen's prime worry when it came to Free Man In Paris was that, from the lyrics, people would work out that he was gay. Though he would make his sexuality public later, Geffen was still exploring it within himself at the time Mitchell wrote her song. "I had had sexual experiences with men early in my life, but I never thought or acknowledged to myself that I was homosexual," he said in 1994. "Then I decided I was straight, which is not the same thing as being straight." He didn't want to make these internal struggles known. (He needed have worried. No one twigged or asked awkward questions.)
The song's mood of liberation is enhanced by a guest guitar appearance from José Feliciano, and harmonies sung by David Crosby and Graham Nash.
During 1973, Mitchell was living in LA, in David Geffen's large house. It's said that her time staying with the label head, where she observed several people's parties, helped her create the persona on this song. Mitchell was finding ever-more glamorous masks hiding ugly truths in the world she moved in; People's Parties, in part, was her attempt to snatch them away. The kind of superficiality on show here was something that was especially troubling her at the time. "I've been in the company of people and I've felt amazingly lonely," she said in 1973.
Mitchell has recalled that, at these parties, she'd often sit among a group of already-established friends, chatting about someone she didn't know and getting ever more bored and anxious to leave. "That's a form of loneliness I've experienced," she has said, and this song captures it perfectly.
The Same Situation
When Mitchell met the actor Warren Beatty, he had already been notoriously immortalised in song (Carly Simon has confirmed that part of 1972's You're So Vain was written about Beatty and her brief liaison with him). Mitchell, too, had felt the glare of his interest, which she did not return. "Most women would have been flattered," she said. "It was flattering, but there was no way I would have..."
Instead, she put Beatty in The Same Situation, as the man who weighs up her "beauty and imperfection". "So many women have been in this position... being vulnerable at a time when you need affection or are searching for love, and you fall into the company of a Don Juan," she said of the song in 2019.
Car On A Hill
Car On A Hill is about how quickly a new romance can sour, a detail of the moment when the narrator is sure a nascent relationship is not going to work. It was apparently influenced by a short romance with fellow singer-songwriter Jackson Browne. A slower burn than many of the Court And Spark songs, its heavier sound and experimental curves wouldn't sound out of place on Mitchell's later albums of the 70s.
At the time, Mitchell was scathing about people who questioned her quick evolution and reluctance to stick with successful formulas. "You know, you wouldn’t ask Picasso to go back and paint from his Blue Period," she remarked in 1974.
Down To You
Mitchell was in the maelstrom decade of sexual freedom when she recorded Court And Spark, yet she had a complex relationship with its gains. She was sometimes shamed by the music press for her romantic and sexual relationships (most notably in a 1971 Rolling Stone article where she was labelled "Queen Of El Lay"), and such sexist coverage could make her suspicious of journalists.
In her songs, Mitchell was interested not in celebrating sexual liberation for its own sake, but in analysing how it worked with human desires for companionship. She had created the brilliant Cactus Tree, on her debut album, Song To A Seagull, about this theme, and returned to it - with a greater degree of frankness and loneliness - on Down To You.
Just Like This Train
John Guerin was, in 1973, one of North America's best young jazz drummers. When it was first suggested that he might work with Mitchell, he recoiled, thinking her merely a folk singer. He soon learned otherwise. Awestruck, Guerin said, "She was the whole orchestra in one guitar!" His drumming is the backbone of many of the Court And Spark songs.
Mitchell was smitten, too, and the pair began a romance, which was turbulent - but that would be a key influence on Mitchell during the Court And Spark sessions. Guerin was a wild spirit, and this helped Mitchell get over the difficulties she felt following her breakup from Jackson Browne. "Joan's a very complicated person and I'm a pretty straightahead guy," Guerin said. "I think she lightened up a lot with me."
However, Guerin's faithlessness ("Jealous lovin'll make you crazy," sings Mitchell), alongside his healing properties, infuse Just Like This Train; its most perfect line is Mitchell's fantasy at watching Guerin's hairline recede. After recovering from a brain aneurysm she'd suffered in 2015, Mitchell stunned the audience at her Newport Folk Festival comeback, in 2022, by performing an instrumental version of the song, nailing its complex guitar runs. Mitchell and Guerin would not last the long term, but his influence would continue to stay with her; he also partly inspired Hejira's Refuge Of The Roads.
Raised On Robbery
Raised On Robbery is a mixture of bawdy blues ("I'm a pretty good cook/Sitting on my groceries") and drunken confessional. The part where the narrator talks about her "son of a bitch" partner could almost represent the fleshy, bitter reality of Blue's The Last Time I Saw Richard, as sung 20 years later.
The song strikes one of Court And Spark's lighter moods, with guitar from Robbie Robertson and a memorable saxophone solo courtesy of Tom Scott.
In 1973, Mitchell tried therapy. It didn't go so well. "My problem was that I was sad," she said. "I wasn't mentally ill. I was sad, trying to get something going in impossible situations." She didn't have a trusting relationship with her therapist, and felt a lot of his advice was asinine. This experience begins the lyrics of Trouble Child, where she refers to being told - by someone who is meant to be supporting her - about how her attitude is all wrong.
But Trouble Child soon navigates deeper waters. Mitchell's experience of therapy did little but exacerbate her loneliness, the emotion that permeates Court And Spark. "I suppose people have always been lonely, but this, I think, is an especially lonely time to live in," she mused in 1973. "So many people are valueless and confused. I know a lot of people who are living a kind of free life who don't really believe that what they're doing is right, and somewhere deep in them they're confused."
From Trouble Child, which castigates psychoanalysis, to Twisted, which satirises it. Mitchell has not recorded many cover versions, so the songs which she chooses to make her own are always worthy of comment.
Twisted was made famous by 50s jazz act Lambert, Hendricks And Ross. Annie Ross, the trio's singer, was a great inspiration to Mitchell. In a 1968 snippet of Mitchell in conversation (released in 2022, on Archives, Vol.2: The Reprise Years (1968-1971)), she revealed Ross' influence on her, right from her earliest days. "Learning to do that jazz phrasing has really come in handy," Mitchell said. "I used to just sit and memorise Lambert, Hendricks And Ross albums. I couldn't do it all, like Cloudburst, I could never do that. but I could do Twisted and a few of the other ones."
Ending Court And Spark on Twisted, particularly as Mitchell also uses comedy duo Cheech And Chong for added silliness, was a brilliant move. It held the album's lonely and sometimes difficult emotions while paying tribute to the musical style, jazz, which underpinned it. And it provided the listener with a laugh of final release.
"It has some sort of continuity or thread to it," Mitchell said of Court And Spark at the time of its release. Summing up what remains one of the best Joni Mitchell albums, she added, "I like to think that it's almost like a novel. I try as much as possible to link up the songs so that there's a musical connection, one to the other."
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Added to Library on January 17, 2024. (540)
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