If you dropped a needle on Joni Mitchell’s brand-new LP in January of 1974, you might have expected yet another hour of her signature elegies. On her two previous records, 1971’s Blue and 1972’s For the Roses, Mitchell excavated arresting songs from deep within her psyche. They are complex but accessible, often pairing Mitchell’s lithe voice with her own accompaniment on sombre piano or supple dulcimer. They are melancholy and sparse. And they aren’t very fun.
Court and Spark starts in a familiar Jonian fashion: mournful piano chords, poetic lyrics, Mitchell’s skyscraper voice. “Love came to my door with a sleeping roll and a madman’s soul,” she coos. “He thought for sure I’d seen him dancing in a river in the dark, looking for a woman to court and spark.” But when she unfurls the title of the album, something unexpected appears: a stuttering hi-hat. A beat in a Joni Mitchell song. And with that rhythm, the Joni of the past was gone. Joni the Confessional Poet, Joni the Selfish and Sad, Joni the Lonely Painter was no more.
By 1974, Mitchell had grown tired of her old style. “I feel miscast in some of the songs that I wrote as a younger woman,” she told CBC Radio a couple weeks after Court and Spark’s release. “You know, you wouldn’t ask Picasso to go back and paint from his Blue Period.” She was done playing the starry-eyed hippie. She was tired of singing dirges. She wanted to find new, challenging, exciting ways to write pop music. And so Joni the lonely, Joni the soloist, did something nobody ever expected her to do. She hired a band.
Mitchell enlisted members of L.A. Express, a jazz fusion band, to add some seasoning to her new crop of songs. At the time, jazz fusion records like Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters were taking popular music into uncharted territory. Mitchell wanted in. She took her time with Court and Spark; 1973 was the first year since her 1968 debut that she didn’t release a studio album, and she performed live only a handful of times.
At the end of that year, Mitchell fired her opening shot. “Raised on Robbery” was released as the lead single to Court and Spark. “Robbery” is a rollicking homage to ’50s rock and roll. It’s what it might sound like if Ella Fitzgerald did uppers and covered “Johnny B. Goode.” It’s all soaring melodies and electric guitar and untamed saxophones. It’s giddy and it quickens the heart. It genuinely rocks. And it’s got a sense of humour. “He drunk up all the rest,” Mitchell sings, painting a portrait of a man who drinks in bars alone, casting around for women dressed in lace, praying that his bets on the Toronto Maple Leafs will bear fruit. Mitchell laughs him off: “That son of a bitch.”
Joni is known for her witty and incisive lyrics, but equally affecting are her melodies, which aim to please. “I’m still obsessed with pushing the perimeters of what entails a pop song,” she told Rolling Stone’s Cameron Crowe in 1979. She had done that many times before Court and Spark. “Big Yellow Taxi” is a gleeful earworm about humanity’s destruction of the earth; “Woodstock” is an open-hearted homage to the famous festival she didn’t attend; “River” is catchy, even if it sounds like icicles and snow and sorrow.
Court and Spark, her sixth studio album, turns fifty this month. While it’s not her most beloved album (that would be Blue) and it’s not her album with the most hits (that’s Ladies of the Canyon), it is where she pushed those pop perimeters permanently. “Car on a Hill,” track six, starts off as a catchy tune about waiting for a lover to come over, but after the chorus, the song mutates into a slow, ascending choral riff. It sounds like Mitchell’s climbing toward heaven. At the end of the riff, she sings this note that sounds like the clouds have parted and a brilliant beam of gold light is shining right into your eardrums. Then the beat comes back in, and the simple chord progression from the beginning of the song returns as if she hasn’t just shoved a wonderful and strange and utterly shocking passage into the middle of an otherwise inoffensive pop tune.
When Joni first came into my life, it was with Blue and I was in university. I remember at the time I would watch and rewatch the big interview she did with Jian Ghomeshi in 2013. That conversation was a rarity; Joni famously dislikes interviews, but she gave Ghomeshi nearly two hours of a sweeping retrospective on her life, art, and career. In her huge house, where she lived alone, she talked about how she spent her days painting, how friends came over occasionally, how they’d want to listen to her music and she wouldn’t because she dislikes looking back. This was two years before Joni suffered a brain aneurysm that temporarily paralyzed her, stripping her of her ability to walk, talk, or sing. The interview reinforced an idea I had that she was a lonely old woman, that her fear of solitude, the one sewn into Blue, had come true. Blue is considered one of the great albums about sadness. It is about love and how a heartbreak can feel like death.
I felt very seen by the wistful songs on Blue: “A Case of You,” “River,” “Blue,” “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” Like Joni, I was a perennially heartbroken Scorpio, intensely critical of my shortcomings in relationships. I was melodramatic and anxious and deathly afraid of being alone. I constantly felt morose, downtrodden, blue. I felt she knew that darkness I held. Her words and chords got me through some hard times.
But as I exited my tortured university years and entered real adulthood, I began to shake off my angst and ennui. Blue had been a welcome balm at a time when I needed soothing, but I was starting to outgrow it, as Joni herself eventually did. “By the time of my fourth album [Blue], I came to another turning point—that terrible opportunity that people are given in their lives,” she said in 1979. “The day that they discover to the tips of their toes that they’re assholes.” Like Joni, I was probably a bit of an asshole during my Blue period. It’s true that I was struggling, but I often used that as a licence to only consider myself.
I’d like to think that I have acknowledged and uprooted a lot of my youthful assholery. And as I reckoned with my selfishness, as I started to grow up, I began to see myself less in Blue and more in Court and Spark. Where Blue is stormy and snarling, Court and Spark is wild, sunny, and free. It’s about how funny and strange people are, how boxes were created to be smashed, how life is full of pleasures when you move beyond what plagued you as a naive kid. It’s as mercurial as the woman who made it, and an expression of her lifelong desire to not be pigeonholed. It’s brilliant and crazy and delightful, an album written by somebody who’s exchanged their youthful angst for the liberation of adulthood. Young assholes only think of themselves; well-adjusted adults try to understand others. With Court and Spark, Joni rejected navel gazing and embraced empathy.
Take track three, “Free Man in Paris.” It’s written from the perspective of David Geffen, a powerful record executive and close friend of Mitchell’s. The song is based on a trip he and Mitchell and Robbie Robertson took to Paris, where Geffen felt free from the trivial, nattering needs of his pop star clients. Free to explore his sexuality without judgment or consequence (Geffen publicly came out as gay in 1992, but he also described his eighteen-month relationship with Cher in the ’70s as “the greatest high I had ever experienced,” so the clues were there). Free to be his full adult self.
It’s a giddy song. It’s not tinged with sorrow or existentialism or turmoil like much of her previous work. “Free Man in Paris” is just a happy pop tune, a great one, about how her friend had fun on vacation. It’s not absent of profundity (“Everybody’s in it for their own gain, you can’t please them all”), but Mitchell wasn’t aiming for the sublime poetry you might find on Blue. When Court and Spark pokes fun at the masks we put on to seem like adults, in turn it celebrates how good it feels to finally take them off. I see now that she never was the sad sack I once imagined her to be; she is, beyond her musical gifts, someone deeply invested in and inspired by the joys of human connection.
Since I’ve come to these conclusions about Joni’s artistic output, I don’t hear her old music the same way anymore. The fog that once clouded Blue seems to have lifted. Where I once fixated on its dejection, I now hear its withering cynicism (“Reading the news and it sure looks bad / They won’t give peace a chance, that was just a dream some of us had”), its wry humour (“If you need me, I’ll be in the bar”), and its impulse to see the best in others (“Oh, you’re a mean old daddy but I like you fine”). I do not see it, as I once did, simply as an album by a sad woman about her sadness. I see it as an expression of her full emotional breadth. It contains all the colours of the rainbow, though they are tinted indigo.
In examining Blue and Court and Spark, I find myself thinking of another pop songwriter known for her unrivalled song writing abilities and public self-scrutiny: Taylor Swift. Swift has often been compared to Mitchell; her fourth album, Red, is thought to be modelled after Blue. Both bear a monochromatic name, emblematic of a score of emotions. Like Blue, Red ’s cover pictures the artist in close-up, head tilted, eyes down, swathed in her album’s titular hue. And both mark a turn inward, an attempt to communicate the many complex emotions that surround young love.
If Red is Swift’s Blue, then 1989, where Swift embraced populist melodies and matured her views on love and experienced a blazing surge in success, is her Court and Spark. On 1989, Swift imploded her pop-country sound and doubled down on sugary music, dreaming up new ways to craft pop, as Mitchell had done decades before. In shifting gears so drastically, Mitchell gave permission to the woman pop singers of the future to explore new ways to refract their art. With Court and Spark, she eschewed the boxes she’d been placed in and offered a model for her successors to do the same.
I’ve been avoiding superlatives because I don’t think Joni Mitchell has a best or most important album or song or project. I don’t think that’s how she’d want to be spoken of. Throughout her career, it’s been clear that she hates to be put in a box. She’s been thought of alternately as the hippie pixie of “Woodstock” and the lovelorn Eeyore of Blue and the jazz-pop virtuoso of Court and Spark. She is all of these things and she is none of these things. Her art grew as she did, which is, in part, why she is such a rewarding artist to fall for. But Court and Spark was her declaration of independence. It is where the world discovered what Joni Mitchell always knew—that she is not one thing but many, not a still photograph but an ever-shifting, many-coloured kaleidoscope.
“You have two options,” she said in that 1979 interview. “You can stay the same and protect the formula that gave you your initial success. They’re going to crucify you for staying the same. If you change, they’re going to crucify you for changing. But staying the same is boring. And change is interesting. So of the two options, I’d rather be crucified for changing.”