Joni Mitchell has been described as the greatest female singer/songwriter of the twentieth century. This is unfair… she stands at the very pinnacle regardless of gender. Like no other popular musician, she has developed her talents in unexpected and original ways. The Joni Mitchell of 2008 is older and even better than the Joni Mitchell of the late 60’s whose song ‘Both Sides Now’ shot her to fame. Over her career, she has produced a large number of albums: they are all excellent and some of them are truly masterpieces.
Her album ‘Blue’, released in 1971, is considered one of the seminal albums of the last part of the last century. In it, she explores a wide variety of emotions with astonishingly insightful lyrics and beautiful melodies. It is an unforgettable album. But it was almost the last of a series of albums in what might be described as her folk period. During the middle and later part of her career, Mitchell went on to explore a wide variety of musical genres while infusing them with her own style. To get a sense of her musical journey beyond folk, I would suggest listening to the following albums: ‘Hissing of Summer Lawns’; ‘Hejira’; ‘Mingus’; ‘Night Ride Home’; ‘Turbulent Indigo’; and her latest album, ‘Shine’, released in 2007. However, the album that best captures Mitchell’s progression from a tuneful singer/songwriter of folk/pop to something altogether deeper is 1974’s ‘Court & Spark’. It is definitely one of her masterpieces: it takes popular music in a new direction but doesn’t leave the audience behind (an accusation made about ‘Mingus’ with some justification). Indeed, it has been her best-selling album. It was unusual in those days for an established star like Mitchell to take a risk and veer away from the style of music that had brought her success: she could have lost her audience totally but, thanks to a strong fan base and good reviews, she was, and has been, able to continue her run of success for decades.
‘Court & Spark’ blends nightclub style jazz with pop and folk and each track makes full use of an array of instrumentation and vocal harmonies. She’s got some high-class backing on this album with contributions from the likes of Jose Feliciano, Steve Cropper, Robbie Roberston and Cheech & Chong rapping in the background of the track ‘Twisted’! There’s plenty of meaty brass and strings, electric guitars and pianos, and powerful rhythms from drums and bass. You can dance to most of the tracks – not something you could say about her earlier albums. The introspective balladeer singing sweetly accompanied by an acoustic guitar or soft piano has given way to a worldly woman tempered by experience and time – more Sarah Vaughn than Judy Collins. Her vocal phrasing is superb and can be sultry or yearning or exuberant as required by the song. As she has always done, Mitchell re-tunes her guitar in novel ways and explores unusual chord progressions that shouldn’t work but do magnificently. And, just to show that she’s not a one-trick pony, her own artwork has been used for the album cover.
Three of the songs on the album were released as singles and became hits to a greater or lesser degree: ‘Raised on Robbery’, ‘Help Me’ and ‘Free Man in Paris’. All of the tracks were written by Mitchell with the exception of ‘Twisted’ which is a witty, jazzy, high speed romp about schizophrenia. The album as a whole deals with the madness and loneliness of the dating scene and the thrills and spills of falling in love. By running several of the tracks into each other, the album’s themes are intensified. Particularly effective and moving, is the transition from ‘People’s Parties’ to ‘Same Situation’. The melodies are different but the sentiments are the same – it’s tough to meet the right person and, when you do, you can be at their mercy not knowing whether your feelings are reciprocated. There’s a line in ‘Same Situation’ where there is such a glorious blending of lyric and melody that anyone could listen to those three or four bars endlessly and still find something thrilling. The line goes: ‘You’ve had lots of lovely women/Now you turn your gaze to me/Weighing the beauty and the imperfection/To see if I’m worthy’. I’m sorry, you’re just going to have to buy this album so that you can hear for yourself how Ms. Mitchell manages to achieve perfection in songwriting.