Pazz and Jop 1974 #1

Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark

It’s not a good time to be saying anything less than glowing about Joni Mitchell, with her recent triumphant return to the stage. A lot of people love her music. I am not one of those people. The ones who love her are right to do so. And the rest of us are right not to.

Of course, it’s not allowed to be that simple. We struggle to understand why people don’t share our values and opinions. Is there something wrong with them? Or am I the problem? We are highly irrational about the things we love, and no better about the things we don’t. 

Somewhere, there’s a Rammstein fan asking herself why she should give a shit about some old lady. I’m not quite there, but I can’t fake caring about Joni Mitchell’s music. Oh, it isn’t absolute – there are things on “Court and Spark” that I quite like, as there were on “Blue” (“A Case of You” still gives me chills) and the less-heralded “For the Roses” and “Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm”. But, for the most part, I have resisted the mighty weight of the Joni Mitchell Critical Complex.

When you read or talk about music, you will run into lots of people telling you that you’re wrong about something like this. They will explain patiently, as if speaking to a well-behaved child, why you are wrong: her intimate confessional lyrics, her melodies, her novel vocal style, her experiments with jazz. None of this is incorrect, but it misses the point. I don’t care how “great” she is, because I don’t care about the sounds she’s making. And if you don’t get enjoyment from what you’re listening to, why are you even listening to it? For all her greatness, give me something I enjoy. This isn’t broccoli, or cardio, or meditation, or any other thing I do (haphazardly) because it’s good for me. Give me cuddlecore, bedroom pop, emo. Give me my 50th play of “Welcome Interstate Managers”, my 100th play of “The Stranger”, my 250th of “My Aim is True”. But also give me artists that I had never even heard of until this very month: give me Cub, Freedy Johnston, Blake Babies, Leo Nocentelli, Leikeli 47, Hollie Cook. I hope you’ll check them out, but I won’t argue if they don’t do it for you. Just don’t tell me why I’m wrong to not love Joni.

Even some of the reasons given for why she is great don’t sit right with me. Does the personal nature of her lyrics make them better than less personal work? “My Sweet Annette” by Drive-By Truckers never fails to move me (pedal steel guitar is one of the most mournful instruments ever invented, and if you pair it with fiddle, I am pretty much done for), and that story absolutely did not happen to the writer. Artists make the personal universal and the universal personal: neither is intrinsically better than the other.

Or her voice. Yes, it’s distinctive, and you would know it anywhere. But what are you to do if you find it so displeasing that it distracts you from the song? This is sometimes what I experience with her work.

Often what I like in her music are the things that seem less like what I expected to hear. The shambling southern rock feel of much of the guitar work in “Free Man in Paris” (which I have been spontaneously singing over the past week). The boogie-woogie rhythms of “Raised on Robbery”. The minimalist funk of “Trouble Child”. The madcap silliness of “Twisted”. There are pleasant smooth jazz-adjacent moments throughout the record, and from what I know of her subsequent career, it turned out to be a sandbox that she quite enjoyed playing in.

“Court and Spark” is a perfectly fine pop record: I just don’t hear whatever it was that made critics decide it was the best album of its year, and I could listen to it one hundred times and probably never hear it. Luckily, I don’t have to: there’s always another play of “Purple Rain” waiting for me if I run out of ideas about what to put on next.

Pazz and Jop 1971 – #14

Joni Mitchell – Blue

My wife does not like Joni Mitchell’s music at all. I don’t feel quite the same (I owned on cassette and enjoyed often her 1988 sort-of comeback “Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm”), but in deference to the love of my life, I usually skip her tunes when they come up on a Spotify playlist. The problem is her voice: there are those too frequent moments when it sounds like a small bird is being gently murdered. She can never quite shake herself of the need to aim for those higher notes, even though the sound doesn’t really change, it just feels strained. I thus came to this with a lot of resistance, though half the tracks here were familiar from long passive exposure.

The songwriting cannot be faulted. I know next-to-nothing about Mitchell and her career arc, but would be unsurprised to learn she was a favourite of desperate artsy girls and boys lying stoned in dorm rooms trying to figure their shit out. There’s a nakedness to her confessional lyrics, a leaving-it-all-out-there (Kris Kristofferson supposedly told her to “keep something to yourself”) approach to her art that should draw young aesthetes to her. “I could drink a case of you, darling, and still be on my feet” just gutted me with that sense of desperate desire for another person that we all – if we’re both lucky and cursed – have felt. (And, weirdly, the strain in her voice works for this song.) I especially liked the songs where it is Joni and her piano (except “My Old Man”, which is a microcosm of the things that can make her a difficult listen) or guitar, and when she combines those and reins in somewhat the vocal tics, the results are sublime, as in “Blue” and “River”. “Little Green” was new to me, and I love this gentle song about the daughter she gave up for adoption. In the end, while I won’t be playing this regularly – I would like to stay married, for one thing – I can see myself coming back to it, all alone and wallowing in Joni.

(Originally posted on Facebook, April 18, 2021)