Hard to believe it’s been 45 years since Court and Spark was first heard on the airwaves. For me, Court and Spark can be subtitled: Joni Mitchell meets Steely Dan.
I played this CD in the car the other day and kept driving until it was over, just so I could hear it all at one time. This is hardly a conceptual album in the traditional sense, but every song shimmers with nuances about love and fits like fingers in a glove. For Mitchell, love is unconventional because people react unconventionally when the sparks fly.
Court and Spark fell curiously in better For the Roses (1972) and The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) both less creative and less focused.
Mitchell was part of the singer/songwriter boom of the early 1970’s, catchy, stripped-down musical arrangements with dense and thoughtfully reflective lyrics.
Her first three albums were earnest, fundamental folkish hymns that gained her a growing base of fans. Her fourth album, Blue, was a game changer, an instant classic.
For the Roses seemed a step backward, a disappoint to many, though it’s earned a more positive reputation over time.
Two albums later, she had entered her jazz appreciation phase, with more obtuse lyrics and eclectic arrangements featuring jazz players musicals like Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius. The Hissing of Summer Lawns is not bad, just not very memorable. Hejira, which followed would be her best “jazz” album.
Court and Spark blended the best of everything Joni Mitchell. The songs generally offered lyrics about love and relationships, a unusual subject, but this time a little inviting. Musically, Mitchell managed to write catchy tunes with her open tunings and jazz inflections, but the recipe was delicious.
Running just 37 minutes, this is not a seven-course feast, but a filling and well-balanced meal. With one song over five minutes, most were three minutes or shorter. In fact, I recall playing the album entirely and then flipping it over to start again.
The arrangements are tight, a little jazzy, there’s no waste. Joni Mitchell employees a menagerie of L.A. studio musicians and mixes it up with some funky horns, like Steely Dan. Guitarist Larry Carlton, a frequent Steely Dan contributor, adds his touch on most of the songs with his fills and chunky chords. If you put on a pair of headphones, you can hear his magic.
“Help Me” was the lead single from the album and was her only top ten hit in the U.S. Many of her songs are well known but she’s never been much of a singles artist. Other artists have had big hits with her songs.
Besides her unusual musical song chords and instrument tunings, Mitchell has always been revered for the directness and worldliness of her lyrics. Her words come flying at you fast and relentlessly in her songs. You have to read the liner notes to catch the deeper meaning in her songs. Love is the easiest but most demanding subject to write about. To tell it, like it’s never been expressed before, is the work of professionals.
Mitchell would never be this intentionally commercial again, it was a field she had already plowed; go for a new canvass with those new colors.
Everything comes and goes
Pleasure moves on too early
And trouble leaves too slow
Just when you’re thinking
You’ve finally got it made
Bad news comes knocking
At your garden gate
Knocking for you
You’re a brute you’re an angel
You can crawl you can fly too
It’s down to you
It all comes down to you
- Joni Mitchell, “Down to You”