Joni Mitchell

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Janet Maslin

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Understanding the singer songwriter's gift involves tracing a pattern of personal evolution … rather than isolating the most impressive material. Court and Spark (1974) may be Joni Mitchell's finest album, but the continuum that brought her to that point is more exciting than any single effort.

Hindsight helps, of course: when Mitchell made her 1968 recording debut, it would have been difficult to peg her as anything more promising than an obviously gifted but dour and arty poet, more comfortable behind the scenes (supplying material to Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Ian and Sylvia) than she might ever become in the limelight…. But that first record [Songs to a Seagull] now seems intriguingly disingenuous. Many of the singer/songwriters' early efforts take on this same uneasy feel in retrospect. Mitchell's opening cut, "I Had a King," is a daintily philosophical account of the breakup of her marriage ("There's no one to blame…") that is, upon closer scrutiny, surprisingly snide…. Yet for all the air of quiet resignation in the lyrics, Mitchell's vocal is baleful, scathing, charged with an anger she cannot bring herself to express directly. Three albums later, in another song about her former spouse ("The Last Time I Saw Richard"), she's still cruel, condemning the man for his drab new wife and his kitchen appliances. But here the resentment is overdrawn, almost caricatured, and tempered by a closing note of loneliness that turns this into a richly dramatic interchange, not a mere sideswipe. (pp. 312, 314)

Over the course of her first six albums, Mitchell had more than mere temper to contend with; it took her almost that long to understand and accept her dependency upon men, to see her giddy romanticism for what it was worth (and take it lightly), to acknowledge the scope of her ambition and yet somehow keep it under control. Her vocal style also has kept fascinatingly close pace with her emotional evolution; where the first album had a glum, thin-lipped sound on most cuts ("Night in the City" is a gloriously high-spirited exception), Court and Spark is exquisitely snug, passionate and yet perfectly controlled. "Same Situation," her finest song thus far, enhances a concise, agonizingly self-aware lyric with a melody that climbs and plummets as dramatically as do the singer's moods, and with the piercingly lovely vocal a work this incisive surely warrants.

If "Same Situation" is Mitchell's most sterling moment (and "For the Roses," the title song from her preceding 1972 album, a close second), it is also an excruciatingly demanding one. "Living on nerves and feelings" as she describes it, may be too much for anyone to bear indefinitely; certainly that seemed true in Mitchell's case when she abruptly changed course after Court and Spark, retreating (with 1975's The Hissing of Summer Lawns) into coolly detached condemnation of bourgeois and bohemian foibles. This is in many ways (laborious lyrics, experiments with jazz accompaniment) Mitchell's most painstaking album, but it may also have been her easiest, placed at such a comfortable remove from the struggles of the self. (p. 314)

Janet Maslin, in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by Jim Miller (copyright © 1976 by Rolling Stone Press; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Rolling Stone Press, Random House. 1976.

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