JONI MITCHELL, “HEJIRA”

Hejira

(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.

“Hejira”:

“Song For Sharon”:

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JONI MITCHELL, “BLUE”

Blue

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #10 – released June 22, 1971. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 8/7/2014)

Track listing: All I Want / My Old Man / Little Green / Carey / Blue / California / This Flight Tonight / River / A Case Of You / The Last Time I Saw Richard

“The work of art stays the same but by staying the same it ages—and changes.” – Geoff Dyer, Zona.

In my early twenties, I moved from Milwaukee (where I was born and raised) over a thousand miles east to Boston. I arrived in my new city on a sweltering, late August Saturday afternoon. Physically ill (a bad cold) and profoundly disoriented (waking up to news of Princess Diana’s death the following morning would disorient me even more), I had what I could check or carry with me on the plane: one large suitcase, a backpack, and a garment bag. My stereo and 500+ CD collection (plus furniture and other assorted possessions) would not arrive for another three weeks; in the meantime, I had to make do with a dozen or so dubbed cassette tapes I brought along to play on my Sony Walkman.

As I slowly acclimated myself over those first few weeks, I listened to two of my cassettes repeatedly. One of them was Joni Mitchell’s BLUE (the other one we’ll get to much later in this series). I had checked it out of the library the previous year, but struggled to fully connect with it; not helping matters was that I first played it while working as a desk receptionist, as the environment didn’t allow for much close listening, which the album requires. Hearing it on headphones, however, was an entirely different experience, although that wasn’t  the only factor—my age and particular situation (moving across the country, alone, to a place where I knew no one) also account for why I took to BLUE so strongly during that period. Feeling exhilarated and somewhat terrified at what I had gotten myself into, I easily identified with Mitchell’s sparse confessionals; it rapidly became a significant part of my soundtrack as I explored Boston’s unfamiliar, seemingly devil-may-care web of streets.

What first struck me about BLUE and still startles me to this day is Mitchell’s candidness. Even without all the rumors or hearsay about whom these songs are about (exacerbated by Mitchell’s high-profile dalliances with the likes of Graham Nash, James Taylor (who plays on two tracks) and others), you immediately sense they’re personal anecdotes more than invented tales. Her tendency to write in first-person lays the foundation for this, and the attentive, sharp details she sprinkles throughout her lyrics further supports it. For all I know, she didn’t live out any of these scenarios—nice as it would be to believe, how likely is it that she actually drew a map of Canada on the back of a coaster with a guy’s face sketched on it twice, as she sings in “A Case of You”? While the reality of this and other moments relayed in BLUE more likely fall somewhere between autobiography and fiction, what matters is how well Mitchell sells such details and situations. It’s hard to imagine Dionne Warwick or even Dusty Springfield convincingly sing a lyric as open and raw and honest and self-immolating as “I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad / Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I ever had” (from “River”). With Mitchell, however, you believe and accept every word of it.

Her conviction in part comes from her emotional connection to these songs. With her voice always front and center in the mix, she’s a storyteller but also a protagonist, a tour guide and a confidant, lending each song personality and intimacy. She’s alternately optimistic and yearning (“All I Want”), wistful and regretful (“Little Green”), lamenting and exploratory (“Blue”), editorial and celebratory (“California”), lustful and devotional (“A Case of You”)—and often subtly shifts back and forth between multiple emotional shadings. Think of the redneck she met on a Grecian isle in “California”: “he gave me back my smile,” she happily notes, before revealing, “but he kept my camera to sell,” with just a hint of sarcasm and self-deprecation, as if to say, “oh yes, I was duped, but wasn’t it fun?” On the title track, surveying her generation’s malaise, she notes, “Everybody’s saying that Hell’s the hippest way to go, well I don’t think so,” before slyly adding, “But I’m gonna take a look around it though.” With Mitchell, you start to think not everything in a three-minute pop song has to be in black-and-white. Her upfront presence and kind but cunning persona gives us something to hold onto, allowing for nuances in her lyrics to surface at both opportune and unexpected moments.

BLUE was Mitchell’s fourth album. Musically, it’s not radically different from the first three (although the albums following it would be)—on most tracks, Mitchell is only accompanied by a guitar or a piano, occasionally adding a second guitar (“California”), a brief snatch of backing vocals (“This Flight Tonight”) or percussion for rhythmic support (“All I Want”). The song with the lushest arrangement was naturally the album’s single: “Carey” frames its ebullient character sketch with a basic acoustic guitar/bass/drums palette but much of its charm comes from the sweet counterpoint backing vocals that appear in the chorus and later verses. Still, for all its simplicity, Mitchell’s early work is often challenging to get into due to the complexity of her melodies. If anything, those melodies are even more intricate here, but beginning with her previous album LADIES OF THE CANYON, Mitchell became more adept at shaping her songs. On BLUE, she’s confident in doing so to the point of remarkable fearlessness. “River” provides an entry point by quoting the melody of “Jingle Bells” but inserts it so seamlessly that it registers but doesn’t obscure the song’s primary melody. The title track seems utterly shapeless in theory, eschewing any sort of verse-chorus-verse structure, but you don’t even question how it proceeds because every piece just seems to fit together. “The Last Time I Saw Richard” has an instrumental intro that may be unconventionally lengthy, but it sets an indelible mood that resounds throughout the song’s remainder as Mitchell recalls a former lover with fondness, cynicism, and resolve.

“Former lover” is a good way to sum up how I presently feel about BLUE. I can’t help but identify it with a part of my life that now feels of another era, albeit one that lasted long after my first year in Boston. A decade ago, when I first compiled and ranked my one hundred favorite albums, I placed it at number 2; if I ranked them today, I doubt it would make the top 50. That’s not to say I no longer love it—apart from “My Old Man” (which has aged as poorly as you’d expect with that title), BLUE mostly holds up due to its timeless sound and Mitchell’s arresting, unique perspective. It arguably set a template for generations of female singer/songwriters and you can easily imagine it having as powerful an effect on a teenager or young adult hearing it for the first time today. However, I think being young and open enough is key—I discovered BLUE at a time when I was most susceptible to it. Nearly two decades on, my life has changed considerably (as most lives do). While I still appreciate BLUE, it now feels almost anticlimactic—I’ve heard to it so often, I know it by heart, and thus, it contains little left for me to unearth. It’s also somewhat disembodying—as it plays, I can’t help but remember the person I was back then and strain to reconcile him with who I am now. As did Mitchell, who promptly left this template behind, her subsequent albums a series of bold stylistic leaps that eventually led to the record of hers I now value more deeply than BLUE. But that’s a few entries away.

Up next: Popular and Genius need not be mutually exclusive terms.

“Carey”:

“The Last Time I Saw Richard”: