Joni Mitchell reached her commercial high point with Court and Spark, a remarkably deft fusion of folk, pop, and jazz which stands as her best-selling work to date. While as unified and insightful as Blue, the album – a concept record exploring the roles of honesty and trust in relationships, romantic and otherwise – moves away from confessional songwriting into evocative character studies: the hit "Free Man in Paris," written about David Geffen, is a not-so-subtle dig at the machinations of the music industry, while "Raised on Robbery" offers an acutely funny look at the predatory environment of the singles bar scene. Much of Court and Spark is devoted to wary love songs: both the title cut and "Help Me," the record's most successful single, carefully measure the risks of romance, while "People's Parties" and "The Same Situation" are fraught with worry and self-doubt (standing in direct opposition to the music, which is smart, smooth, and assured from the first note to the last).
This three CD boxed set features a number of live recordings of Joni from concerts and sessions recorded for FM Broadcast in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Starting with a number of live cuts from shows she performed in the mid to late 1960s, her full set from the Newport Folk Festival in 1968, and a couple more cuts recorded in the early 1970s, Disc One provides an excellent introduction to the girl s live material from that early era. Moving on to Disc Two we are now in the early 1980s.
After the expanded instrumental scale and sonic experimentation of Court & Spark and The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Joni Mitchell reverses that flow for the more intimate, interior music on Hejira, which retracts the arranging style to focus on Mitchell's distinctive acoustic guitar and piano, and the brilliant, lyrical bass fantasias of fretless bass innovator Jaco Pastorius. Known for his furious, sometimes rococo figures beneath the music of Weather Report, Pastorius is tamed by Mitchell's cooler, more deliberate ballads: these meditations coax a far gentler, subdued lyricism from Pastorius, whose intricate bass counterpoints Mitchell's coolly elegant singing, especially on the sublime "Amelia," which transforms the mystery of Amelia Earheart into a parable of both feminism and romantic self-discovery. This isn't Mitchell at her most obviously ambitious, yet the depth of feeling, poetic reach, and musical confidence make this among the finest works in a very fine canon.
Joni Mitchell has had one of the most peculiar career arcs in the history of popular music. Since her first stint as a superstar in the making – from about 1967 to 1975 – her overall creative catalog of complex, challenging, ever-changing music has gone more or less unnoticed by the masses. Of course, this has been done by mutual agreement between artist and audience. Mitchell has no desire to pander (when she's slipped and tried, the results have been very mixed – 1985's poorly received Dog Eat Dog, for example) and the vast majority of the pop music buying public don't want to think when they listen to favored acts.
After more than a decade of de facto exile from the mainstream, Joni Mitchell has regained much of her media profile, if not her commercial impact, thanks to deserved if belated accolades from critics and music business peers.