Joni Mitchell Court and Spark

Joni Mitchell’s ‘Court and Spark’ Still Smolders at 50

While the shift from folk to jazz-rock on Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark may seem like commercial ambition, it was layered and signaled a profound change.

Court and Spark
Joni Mitchell
17 January 1974

Even before Joni Mitchell wrote about fame, she wrote about its trappings. Many artists who eventually ascend to the center of public attention display this tendency: before a commercial breakthrough, an artist shows an awareness of the pliability of persona that fame requires, whether that means shifting to embody a cultural belief or compressing story-songs into marketable tunes. 

Despite the often autobiographical specificity of her early lyrics, Mitchell’s songs contain an awareness of their context. For example, although Mitchell never attended the famous music festival, her song “Woodstock” from 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon became its defining anthem. Additionally, the folktales of her debut, Song to a Seagull, captured the spirit of social movements of the 1960s. 

The album’s opening track, “I Had a King”, is a parable that uses a tale of a princess betrothed to an unfriendly royal partner that tells the story of Mitchell’s first marriage to her touring partner Chuck Mitchell. Nine years her senior, he scoffed at the idea that she could have seen life “from both sides now” at 23. The role of “I Had a King” as an accidental feminist rallying cry (Mitchell has professed that she is “not a feminist”) encapsulates the ability of Mitchell’s songwriting to function as a vessel for the experience of others. 

Court and Spark, Mitchell’s sixth album, released in 1974, was her most commercially successful, with the single “Help Me” peaking at number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 and the record reaching number two on the Billboard 200. However, at this point in her career, Mitchell had experienced a level of scrutiny regarding her public life so intense that she had retreated into the British Columbia wilderness following the release of 1971’s Blue. During that time, she composed the reflective ballads of 1972’s For the Roses. While, in terms of content, For the Roses was backward-looking, analyzing past relationships and Mitchell’s relationship to fame musically, it foreshadowed the departure from folk that would follow on Court and Spark. While this shift from folk to jazz-rock may seem like commercial ambition, like many aspects of Mitchell’s career, it was layered and signaled a more profound change.

Speaking to journalist Malka Marom in 1973, Mitchell described herself as more prolific musically than lyrically, although many know her for the poetic nature of her writing. Court and Spark comes after what many consider to be her masterpieceBlue, where the understated nature of Mitchell’s acoustic production blurred the porous boundaries between her public and artistic lives: the album is said to be inspired by other public figures of the singer-songwriter movement, such as Graham Nash, Leonard Cohen, and James Taylor

Although Mitchell didn’t name names on Blue, except on the track “Carey”, whose subject wasn’t famous, Court and Spark‘s honesty became its overarching theme. The color blue indicates not only sadness but also an overall collapse of boundaries between Mitchell and the public that came across as purposefully confessional. “I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a package of cigarettes,” Mitchell said, speaking about the time of the album’s writing. However, its pointedness proved that honesty was necessary for artistic expression and personal catharsis, not fulfilling a contract with the public. Four years before Court and Spark, Mitchell had already made her statement on persona.

Disguised by its commercial success, Court and Spark is the album many artists write well into their careers, which is the opposite of a craven cash grab. Joni Mitchell chafed against the machinations of the music industry, as described in “Free Man in Paris”, where she writes from the perspective of business partner David Geffen: “No one was calling me up for favors / No one’s future to decide.” She imagines that freedom from business obligations would open his mind, and she uses the dueling ambitions of Court and Spark to both satisfy his demands and chart her path to full creative control. In the overall scheme of Mitchell’s catalog, the primary function of Court and Spark is that of earned stylistic experimentation instead of commercial success. 

However, the album’s subject matter sometimes aided in its role as a commercial Trojan Horse. Mitchell wrote about fame in “People’s Parties”, observing herself and the attendees of a dinner party with trademark introspection. The song mentions celebrities, such as Jack Nicolson, by name and describes model Apollonia van Ravenstein, referred to as Grace, “with a rose in her teeth and a lampshade crown”. As the party descends into disarray, Mitchell concludes the materially successful but personally distraught crowd has succumbed to the trappings of excess. She confesses, “I’m just livin’ on nerves and feelings with a weak and a lazy mind / And comin’ to people’s parties fumbling deaf, dumb, and blind.” As an artist known for interiority, Joni Mitchell recognizes the benefits of self-depreciation on an album that continued to raise her profile. 

“People’s Parties” is one of the only songs on Court and Spark with hyper-specific detail that is also real. Mentioning famous inspirations by name is something that Mitchell had not done yet at this point in her career. Like Taylor Swift, a clear inheritor of Mitchell’s legacy, Mitchell’s work benefitted from the tension created by plausible deniability: listeners could infer that “River” was about Graham Nash, but the lack of official confirmation allowed for the creation of mythology. Intentionally breaking this tension on “People’s Parties” allowed Mitchell to transcend the level of fame she had achieved, shifting the tension of the record elsewhere.

Another song that mentions characters by name, the raucous “Raised on Robbery”, is purely fictional and allows Mitchell to experiment with storytelling in a way she hadn’t done since her first LP. The hijinks of “Robbery”, a song that brings a pop and rock edge to Mitchell’s jazz experimentations, mirrors the overall purpose of the album: to experiment musically. 

Upgraded with electric guitars and percussion, instruments largely absent from Mitchell’s earlier work, the track allows Mitchell to cash in on the benefits of courting pop and rock. Coming at the album’s climax, “Robbery” serves as a way for Mitchell to release the tension built throughout the record in terms of its narrative by taking a break from her first-person narration and swapping it for a lighthearted tale. It also breaks the tension sonically by providing an uptempo moment after a mellow string of contemplative ballads. 

Using third-person narration on an album when personal “confessions” surely would have sold records allows Mitchell to make the tension of Court and Spark between its jazz sound and the folk of her earlier career, rather than her public and private selves or the completion of a straightforward romantic narrative. The record’s ambivalence to overtly charting Mitchell’s personal development beyond a few vignettes of Hollywood life makes a coming-of-age statement in the sense that Mitchell’s true personal journey isn’t the documentation of a given journey, but the ability to compartmentalize her sense of self when it threatens to thwart her muse. 

On “Twisted”, penned by jazz singer Annie Ross, singing lyrics written by someone else allows Joni Mitchell to enter a theatrical realm. “They say as a child I appeared a little bit wild,” she says, scampering over some syllables while drawing out other words: a back-and-forth that reflects the erratic nature of the song’s unreliable narrator. Mitchell’s mastery of delivering prolific lyrics crammed into their musical container – which contrasts the poetic and measured nature of her original writing – might seem to create a self-defeating result: an album that, at its endpoint, creates a diversion from itself. However, in the context of Court and Spark’s analysis of the pitfalls of fame, “Twisted” resonates with the album’s themes by providing an escape from fame. 

In Mitchell’s hands, “Twisted” is not just about the narrator’s insistence on her mental clarity, despite the objections of a therapist, but about the very act of self-analysis. Notorious for probing the depths of her psyche, Mitchell satirized the central principle of her discography thus far on “Twisted,” implying that the interiority of her work doesn’t necessitate official diagnoses such as those that the song’s narrator resists. Approaching the peak of her fame, through a cover song, Mitchell conveys she feels more comfortable in the skin of someone who can shrug off the labels imposed upon her simply by walking out of a therapist’s office. 

In “Help Me”, Joni Mitchell investigates a theme throughout her discography: the balance between obligations to others, whether business or personal and individual freedom. By portraying a romantic connection as a trap, Mitchell implies that if she were to trust her instincts, she would walk away from an entanglement that threatens her independence. “We love our lovin’, but not like we love our freedom,” she asserts. 

It’s ironic that one of Joni Mitchell’s most accessible pop songs – a format meant to reach the largest amount of people possible – is about finding release from the tension of pleasing others. This persistent theme may explain why Mitchell never created anything else as commercially successful. In the aforementioned interview with Marom, Mitchell characterizes the dilemma of “Help Me”, both as a song and as a product, as indicative of her artistry: “Freedom is necessary in order for me to create, and if I cannot create I don’t feel alive.” 

Throughout her career, Mitchell eschewed commercial expectations, only catering to them pointedly and purposefully so listeners knew when they were being pandered to. The title of “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio”, a single from For the Roses, was less a proclamation to a lover and more a begrudging statement to her record label about their need for a hit song. Even while writing out of “blatant commercialism”, Mitchell remained brutally honest.

Court and Spark, through its ambivalence to the written and musical conventions that had propelled Joni Mitchell’s career thus far, acts as a retrospective and look forward. Continued musical shifts away from folk on subsequent albums retroactively solidify the message of Court and Spark: that a muse is something ephemeral, even to the artist channeling it, and cannot be put into words or bent to the expectations of others. The follow-up to Court and Spark, 1975’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns, continued to situate fictional tales over mellow jazz scores. It received a critical pandering that, over several decades, morphed into universal acclaim. Although it may take time for the public to catch up, Mitchell always knows where to find a spark. 

While Court and Spark had been chiefly musical experimentation, with that accomplishment secured, The Hissing of Summer Lawns allowed Joni Mitchell to return to experimenting with persona while continuing to “cut the jazzers some slack”. Mitchell said, “Can’t you see that all these ‘I’s’ are theatrical?” referring to first-person work that isn’t autobiographical. The Hissing of Summer Lawns investigated the dilemma of the “trapped housewife”, in which Mitchell created character studies of women viewed as disposable by “businessmen in button-downs / Press[ing] into conference rooms,” as described in “Harry’s House/Centerpiece”. Mitchell’s assessment of a domestic lifestyle allowed her to create an allegory for a music business dominated by a male perspective. In that context, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and its predecessor become a representation of capitalism as a whole, a system upheld by the patriarchy. 

Joni Mitchell’s anti-establishment views had been apparent since “The Fiddle and the Drum”, the anti-war anthem from her second studio LP, Clouds. When her analytical gaze landed on topics as accessible as “the blue pools in the squinting sun”, sections of her mainstream audience turned against her. Pop music, which Mitchell flirted with but never fully embraced, must appease the masses. Objectivity must stop where commercial gains are threatened. However, Mitchell’s work embodies that true freedom requires sacrifice- whether that sacrifice is a financial goal or a “normal” life. 

The follow-up to Hissing of Summer Lawns, 1976’s Heijera, describes a road trip across continental America. In the song “Amelia”, Mitchell says, “She was swallowed by the sky / Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly.” Mitchell’s work contains the contradiction that pursuing a dream means clipping other parts of your wings to help that dream survive. Sometimes, the vehicle for success can be the most debilitating part of a project. However, Mitchell allowed her pop inclinations to shine through on Court and Spark, even if the flame wasn’t meant to last.