On album six, Mitchell achieved a sky-high marriage of serenity and yearning.
Chris Roberts 2011
Released in January 1974, Joni Mitchell’s sixth album was her bridge of sighs between folk-rock singer-songwriter and neo-jazz experimentalist. After the successes of Blue and For the Roses, she spent most of 73 crafting it; yet for all the exquisite musicality of her band (guests included Crosby, Nash, Robbie Robertson and José Feliciano) it’s confessional and spontaneous-sounding. The pure but sensuous voice, the acuity and wit of her lyrics and the guileful arrangements mean that its candour endures. Despite the current female domination of the album charts, there isn’t a 21st century artist to hold a candle to her genius.
Some may argue that Blue is her most emotional work and The Hissing of Summer Lawns or Hejira her musical zenith. Yet Court and Spark melts the feeler and the thinker into one woman: fiercely perceptive, proud, too smart for the men who become her characters, yet longing for what we call love. Insights are pinned like butterflies: it’d be a feebly one-dimensional male who couldn’t relate. The album isn’t ‘too literary’: it swings, sways, floats, even rocks, that voice careering fearlessly across melodies that shouldn’t work but do, the rhythms as gently persuasive as caresses. Often, as when her breath catches after the first line of matchless love-swoon Help Me, Joni Mitchell is damn sexy.
Court and Spark went double-platinum, yet Free Man in Paris remains its best-known song: a (crucially, non-judgmental) portrait of a music-biz type who’s "stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song". It transcends its subject to become a paean to an escape that you sense won’t happen. Down to You is deceptively relaxed until its "love is gone" refrain comes in like a doomy thunderclap. Car on a Hill inspired five or six Kate Bush songs, while Raised on Robbery and Twisted are relatively upbeat. The album’s acme is People’s Parties/Same Situation: a deft, deep, darkly joyous stream of flourishes, bittersweet smiles and insecurities. "Caught in my struggle for higher achievement," she sings, "and my search for love that don’t seem to cease." Thus caught, she achieved a sky-high marriage of serenity and yearning.