Joni Mitchell – Blue (1971) and Court and Spark (1974)

Well who am I to comment on Joni Mitchell now after all these years and after all the plaudits? She’s had near universal acclaim from the critics and her peers and following generations. One would be a fool – and wasting one’s time – to not just genuflect at the altar.

But you know, for years there was a coin in my head with Joni Mitchell’s face on it and it wouldn’t drop over the edge and it wouldn’t go away. I kind of felt like I SHOULD get her but somehow I didn’t.

I had two of her albums, and they are both regarded as amongst her very best and fell in her seventies purple patch, so I decided to give it a serious, deliberate go during commute time when there was little to distract me. But there’s a problem there too – if the penny dropped would it mean that ANY penny could drop if you shoved it often enough? Yowzer! With a bit of time and patience I could turn myself into a fan of just about anybody.

Maybe. Or maybe you’ll find yourself tuned into signals you’d missed previously.

Anyway, here’s what I eventually found. Feel free to say “doh”…

She’s a very good singer. She doesn’t make it easy for herself with unusual melodies and some metrically tricky lyrics, but she carries it all with style. There’s a purity to her voice, alongside control, range and great timing. “Carey” is a fine example and a great performance.

I’m intrigued by the independence that she enjoyed. There’s not even a co-producer on those records. We can assume that she was allowed to make all the calls herself. In the absence of any other credits we can assume that she not only writes, but also arranges, calls in the session players and generally makes all the artistic calls. That would be unusual even now for a woman signed to a major label. Contemporary heavyweights such as Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and even Dylan always had somebody producing. Joni was allowed to do it all herself.

Blue is the earlier of the two and more sparsely arranged., The guests are all at least notable and mostly Laurel Canyon royalty – James Taylor, Stephen Stills, David Crosby – but often it’s just her on guitar or piano. The guitars sound like they’re often in slack key tunings and she makes pleasing use of open string drones. I think she’s a bit under regarded as a guitar player. There’s some neat finger picking full of interesting details (including a well used vibrato) and her rhythm playing is rock solid.

Lyrically it’s pretty intense, pretty… naked at times. This may not be everybody’s cup of tea. Conventional wisdom is that she was one of the pioneers of the confessional singer-songwriter mode that dominated in the seventies. I figure that anybody’s entitled to lay their lives out, and Loudon Waineright, whose song writing I adore, has often let it all out (lots of songs about his divorces, his mother, his father and even one about smacking his daughter for heaven’s sake) but the interesting thing about Wainwright is the way he can turn the personal into the universal and find something that you recognise in your own miserable existence. With Joni it’s sometimes just the personal emotion. But very well expressed, and her lyrics, like her playing are full of telling detail.

I’ve mentioned “Carey” before. It’s the stand out here – with a great guest performance from Steven Stills (who is too often overlooked when people muse about the great players of the sixties). She uses her feel for timing very well, and Stills lays down great guitar and bass parts to give the song a joyous groove. The lyrics deal in part with location and travelling – themes that run through the album.

The opening “All I Want” presents an idealistic but also complete and detailed vision of love (“I want to talk to you, want to shampoo you”), a mood that much of what follows questions.

“This Flight Tonight” has her travelling, but also unsure whether she should be coming or going and brilliantly captures the duality that can lurk in a love affair.

Court and Spark came three years and two albums later. Apparently it was her best seller and it received fulsome praise, even judged by the critical reception she got throughout the seventies.

It’s richer, more complex and more ambitious than Blue. Rock/ pop artists overreaching themselves was a not uncommon thing in the seventies, but Mitchell is both capable and confident. The arrangements are fuller, and several LA session heavyweights feature. Often they’re players with a jazz background – Tom Scott, Joe Sample, Wilton Felder, John Guerin, Larry Carlton – and they’re all good and all necessary on material that stretches the players a lot more. She often sings at a lower pitch, but this is not an early manifestation of the vocal problems that beset her later on (smoking is really not good for the voice) as she demonstrates with occasional ventures into the higher register she used on Blue and the verse ending sustained notes that are prominent on both albums.

“Car On The Hill” is a wrenching portrayal of a character who doesn’t yet realise she’s been dumped. “Help Me” and “Free Man In Paris” are great sophisticated pop, and “Raised On Robbery” (with fine guitar work by Robbie Robertson) seems to owe a lot to the contemporary Rolling Stones sound (including a Keith-ish rhythm part). The structures are sometimes unusual and non-linear (“People’s Parties” is all verses, no choruses), but she’s very assured with it. Production wise she crafts a very seductive sonic landscape. It’s smooth, but not overly so, and not so highly polished that the edge and the details are lost.

I enjoyed these albums a lot more than I’ve enjoyed anything by Joni Mitchell in the past (though judging by what others have written I did myself no favours by picking albums she cut after her form started dropping off in the early 80s – and when she started working with producers again).

And I’m satisfied that I didn’t just beat something into my head and could have done the same with anything. It’s redundant to say it, but there’s a lot of very fine craftsmanship on these albums, a lot to listen to (even though they were both single albums back then and thus short by modern standards). Sometimes pennies just take a long time to drop.

One last thing. I don’t find to her be “folk” at all. Certainly not on these albums and despite her background. She’s clearly informed by it, but even on Blue the greater ambition, not to mention the ability to be sophisticated and pop at the same time, is in place. Folk music was really just a jumping off point.

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