(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #14 – released November 1976. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 10/26/2014.)
Track listing: Coyote / Amelia / Furry Sings The Blues / A Strange Boy / Hejira / Song For Sharon / Black Crow / Blue Motel Room / Refuge Of The Roads
Although only four albums removed from Blue (1971), Hejira almost could have come from a different artist or one who recorded at least a dozen albums during the interim. With each post-Blue recording, Joni Mitchell executed a series of bold stylistic leaps, challenging herself and more often than not, her audience: For The Roses (1972) built on the previous record’s raw candidness by alternating ambitious arrangements and song structures with more outgoing, accessible moments (including her first top 40 hit, “You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio”). Court and Spark (1974) pushed that forwardness even further, favoring good old rock and roll over folk (while not entirely obscuring the latter), peppering it with pop-jazz inflections that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Steely Dan record. It ended up her best-selling album, while The Hissing Of Summer Lawns (1975) shifted the emphasis away from folk and rock over to jazz, forgoing this newfound approachability for music that was chewier, more inward and intricate.
All of these recordings (along with 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon) are peak-period Joni and I’ve already written about how much Blue once meant to me. While it’s still a good entry point into Mitchell’s estimable discography, these days I gravitate more towards Hejira, which followed The Hissing of Summer Lawns and, like that album, sounds almost nothing like its predecessor. Actually, Hejira doesn’t sound like much else, period. That’s not to say it’s alien or inaccessible—more like stubborn, really. Stylistically controlled and contained, it plays like an extended interior monologue Mitchell’s having with herself. What prevents it from being too hermetic is that it’s also primarily a travelogue: the title is an Arabic word for “journey”, and much of the album was supposedly written on a road trip Mitchell took from Maine to California. Within this very specific palette she uses, there’s always a sense of movement, of travel, of seeking—either for truth or for the next hotel to retire for the night.
The opener, “Coyote”, straightaway plunges into the album’s dominant sound: repetitive guitar riffs full of ringing, harmonic chords that shade the melody rather than shape it, hand drums in place of a full kit, and rubbery fretless bass whose singularity stands out in the mix, courtesy of Jaco Pastorius, a member of jazz group The Weather Report (so much is Pastorius linked to Hejira that I assumed he played on all of it, but he’s actually only on four tracks). The melody itself rolls like a lazy river, with Mitchell’s ever-crystalline vocals (she’s rarely been in finer voice) relaying a rambling tale of the titular wild animal as alternately a lover, travel companion, alter-ego and simply, just a wild animal. It’s superficially catchy, but certainly not as direct as “River” or even “Free Man In Paris”. Each lengthy verse ends with the key line and manifesto-of-sorts, “You just picked up a hitcher / A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway.”
The percussion drops out altogether for “Amelia”, replaced by both an occasional lead electric guitar and a subtle vibraphone that I originally mistook for an electric piano. After some inspiration from seeing “six jet planes” while “driving across the burning desert”, Mitchell sings as if she were addressing vanished aviator Amelia Earhart, ending each verse contemplatively with the lyric, “Amelia, it was just a false alarm.” While probably not the first artist to sing about Earhart, Mitchell might be the rare one to shift perspective as fluidly as she does here, alternating between first and third person. When she follows the verse most explicitly about Earhart (“a ghost of aviation / she was swallowed by the sky”) with the most upfront one about herself (“Maybe I’ve never loved / I guess that is the truth”), you feel her strong, intimate connection to what she’s singing about—sounds like the most natural thing in the world, but it’s not so easy to pull off.
The subsequent character sketches “Furry Sings The Blues” and “A Strange Boy” feel slightly less personal by nature. The first profiles an old bluesman in Memphis, while the second dissects a former lover who was “foolish and childish” but needed “love and understanding”. Both tracks are brighter-sounding than the two preceding ones (the former employs a full drum kit and a harmonica, the latter could just about fit in on a moodier Court and Spark) and also more playful, particularly when Mitchell’s impression of the crotchety Furry surfaces once or twice (her reading of him saying “I don’t like you” is a love-it-or-hate-it moment). Still, by the time “A Strange Boy” appears, the general sameness of each track threatens to weigh a bit heavily, as if you’re listening to one continuous song-as-travelogue.
Arriving smack dab in the middle of Hejira, the title track snaps everything back into focus. The song’s main hook is a guitar arpeggio that modulates with each chord change; it provides an exemplary foundation for a lyric that reads like an older-and-wiser equivalent of “Both Sides Now” or “All I Want”. Now in her thirties, Mitchell presents herself as “a defector from the petty wars / that shellshock love away,” singing of “returning” to herself, pondering her solitude and mortality. The song concludes by nearly repeating its first four lines: she’s still “a defector from the petty wars”, only this time, “until love sucks me back that way.” With Pastorius back on board and a clarinet solo adding a little sweetening, it’s the album’s most immediate track; although Hejira had no hits, it’s likely the album’s best-known song, at least since Mitchell selected it for her Misses compilation in 1996.
If it weren’t nearly nine minutes long, perhaps “Song For Sharon” might’ve been a hit. Hejira’s lushest, most directly melodic track has Mitchell delivering a monologue over ten verses. The structure never wavers, but neither does it become repetitive—more like hypnotic, especially as Mitchell’s high-pitched, wordless backing vocals appear and vanish throughout. The “Sharon” of the title is an old friend from Maidstone, Saskatchewan. Although the song primarily reminisces about growing up with her in that small prairie town, Mitchell also folds in everything from a trip to a mandolin shop in Staten Island to “a gypsy down on Bleecker Street” she saw as “kind of a joke” (for those who find Mitchell a pretentious sourpuss, her reading of the lyric “and eighteen bucks went up in smoke” is as wondrously self-deprecating as the tale of the redneck who absconded with her camera in Blue’s “California”). However, the song concludes with Mitchell musing over the divergent paths hers and Sharon’s lives took: her friend now has a husband and a farm while Mitchell is anything but settled, prone to the “apple of temptation”, keeping her “eyes on the land and the sky.”
“Black Crow” musically plays like a parallel version of “Coyote”: it’s animal-themed, has similar ringing harmonic chords, and each verse also ends with the same lyric (“I’m like a black crow flying / in the blue, blue sky”), but on the whole it’s darker and more sinuous, charged with feedback and an implication that this sojourn could go off the rails at any second. “Blue Motel Room” offers some solace and resolve; for all those accusing Mitchell of being too much a jazzbo at this career phase, the song is Hejira’s only overtly jazzy track. Over brushed drums, Mitchell makes like a bar chanteuse, delivering a bluesy lament directed towards a lover far away from her titular accommodation in Savannah, Georgia. It could almost be proto-Norah Jones, but weirder—in the second half, she switches to a political metaphor, slyly likening herself and her lover to “America and Russia” in a “cold, cold war” (nearly a decade before it was commonplace for pop singers to make such allusions). She also layers in a multitracked wordless vocal solo where an instrumental one would normally appear in your average jazz ballad.
Hejira concludes with “Refuge of the Roads” as complete a summation of the album’s themes as one could hope for. Upbeat but still tinged with melancholy, Mitchell relays a series of vignettes inspired by her travels, some incredibly specific (the barfly who advises her, “Heart and humor and humility…will lighten up your heavy load”), others more abstract—in the third verse, she experiences “radiant happiness” only to let self-analysis and “a thunderhead of judgment” point towards some sort of epiphany she withholds from us, hinting that “it made most people nervous / they just didn’t want to know.” This act of concealment is precisely what kept Hejira from reaching a larger audience on its initial release: it’s as if Blue’s directness (both musically and thematically) no longer sustained Mitchell. Some people reach a point in life where instead of finding satisfaction in easy answers, they only see additional questions, uncovering layer after layer. With Hejira, Mitchell’s continual search for enrichment and enlightenment resonated as much as it provoked. Subsequent albums, like the uneven Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977) tipped the scales in the latter direction. Despite the occasional gem in her later catalogue (“Come In From The Cold”, from 1991’s Night Ride Home is a song every Mitchell admirer should know), she rarely achieved such balance again.
Up next: Anticipating post-punk, and sidestepping it as well.
“Song For Sharon”: