Thursday, August 23, 2018

Court and Spark

Although Court and Spark features some of Joni Mitchell's most accessible songs, you don't dance or party to Joni Mitchell. Court and Spark is nearly embarrassing to listen to with others. It is so personal that it feels like a private conservation. In the title track, Joni describes her narrow escape from a bad relationship with inexplicable candor:

He seemed like he read my mind
He saw me mistrusting him and still acting               kind
He saw how I worried some times
I worry sometimes.

In "Car on A Hill," she awaits a lover (the same lover?) who is three hours late and looking the no-show. Wondering where he is and what he might be doing, she reflects on the impermanence of infatuation, recalling how "It always seems so righteous at the start,/ When there’s so much laughter,/ When there's so much spark,/ When there’s so much sweetness in the dark." But Mitchell's vulnerability never evokes pity. It makes one wonder why the dude kept her waiting.

Beyond the surface relationship in the song,  those same lines foreshadow Mitchell’s disillusionment with success. Like many artists, having finally achieved popular and critical success with Court and Spark, Joni immediately began to challenge her fans' commitment with a series of jazz infused and certainly less accessible releases. Taken less literally, "Car on A Hill" seems to comment on Mitchell's disillusionment with the success she waited so long to achieve.

In "Down to You" we find the lonely; what we do when our lovers are no shows. Did Joni really, at the height of her popularity, at the pinnacle of her status on Lookout Mountain, go down to the pick up station craving warmth and beauty (just those basics)? Did she come home with strange new flesh to lay down an impression of loneliness? Here is the artist stripped bare. And we've all been there.

By "Just Like This Train," it's all sour grapes, "Because I lost my heart." Plaintive, sad, disappointing, Mitchell's lyrics are better here than on any other offering, including the far more mature, even sophisticated, Hejira.

While the song suite that contains "Car on a Hill," "Down to You" and "Just Like This Train" is the core of Court and Spark's brilliance, it's early in the LP that we find the album's lyrically poignant acme, "People's Parties/Same Situation," a deft, deep, darkly joyous stream of flourishes, bittersweet smiles and insecurities. "Caught in my struggle for higher achievement and my search for love, that don't seem to cease." Odd bedfellows of serenity and yearning. In "People's Parties" she croons, "I wish I had more sense of humor,/ Keeping the sadness at bay./ Throwing the lightness on these things,? Laughing it all away." Were Keats and Shelley this good in exposing the emotion of their time?

Yet the music is even more interesting than her lyrics (if that is even fathomable). It's impossible to imagine Mitchell’s creative process for writing the songs on Court and Spark (oh to be a fly on the wall on Lookout Mountain Road). Most songwriters begin with a collection of chords and then add a melody that fits, but Joni Mitchell actively avoids any predictable patterns. It's as though the melodies were found first and chords had to be invented to support them. Joni just lets the wind catch her voice as she guides it down through Laurel Canyon to the Sunset Strip to the palm-lined streets of  Beverly Hills or the beaches at Malibu, setting it all to musical arrangements that channel Nelson Riddle and Brian Wilson.  The songs defy categorization, blending folk, rock, progressive, country, jazz, pop and classical influences in a single track and without the typical verse, chorus, bridge structure.  It's exhausting just to list the elements, but they're all there. Tempos, keys and arrangements change randomly and frequently. What should be a mess, ends up mesmerizing. Court and Spark is a musical and lyrical dream.

The Mountain Loves the Sea, which became the album cover for Court and Spark was done on my land in Vancouver. It was done in a moment of whimsy. It's a metaphor for the way the waves met up with the mountain; the way they embraced one another.     - Joni Mitchell