Friday, January 17, 2014

Joni Mitchell's Masterpiece

"I was a free man in Paris
I felt unfettered and alive
There was nobody calling me up for favors
And no one's future to decide
You know I'd go back there tomorrow
But for the work I've taken on
Stoking the star maker machinery
Behind the popular song"

Joni Mitchell

Imagine if you can what it must be like to be Joni Mitchell.

While she was still in her 20s, she released "Blue," which is ranked #30 on Rolling Stone's list of the top 500 albums of all time.

Then, 40 years ago today, she released "Court and Spark." It, too, made Rolling Stone's list. It wasn't as highly regarded (#113), but, with its fusion of folk and jazz, it was ranked higher than most albums — and deservedly so.

Mitchell was barely 30 years old at that time, but she had already released her most successful (and, arguably, her best) albums. They were really quite difference from each other. "Blue" was mostly what Jason Ankeny of calls "confessional songwriting," but "Court and Spark" was primarily "evocative character studies."

The music was exquisite, and I believe it ensured Mitchell's place in popular music history.

If you were Joni Mitchell, where would you go from there? Which musical mountains were left to climb?

It would be hard for me to narrow down my favorite Joni Mitchell song, but "Free Man in Paris" certainly would be close to the top of my list. It was pretty popular with the public, too, climbing to #22 on Billboard's Hot 100.

The first single from the album — "Raised on Robbery" — actually was released a couple of months before the album was released, and it gave listeners a taste of what was in store. Robbie Robertson of The Band played electric guitar on a tune that sounded like it would have been right at home on a Manhattan Transfer album.

There was no shortage of talent supporting Mitchell on "Court and Spark." In addition to Robertson, the album had Graham Nash and David Crosby contributing background vocals on "Free Man in Paris" (Jose Feliciano played electric guitar on that one), and comedians Cheech and Chong provided background voices on (appropriately) "Twisted."

I suppose most casual listeners would name "Help Me" as their favorite song from the album, and that would certainly be a safe choice. It was Mitchell's first Top 10 hit, and it was probably the best of the "wary love songs" (as Ankeny put it) that dotted the album.

But "Help Me" got too darn much airplay for me. I liked it, but, if pressed to pick my favorite of the "wary love songs" on "Court and Spark," I probably would choose "People's Parties."

But that's just me.

Whichever song she sang, I always thought Joni Mitchell had a wonderful voice, and Rolling Stone agreed with me. It ranked her #42 on its list of the 100 greatest singers of all time.