Joni Mitchell's fans have been waiting very impatiently for this album to appear. The universal disappointment in her last year's Hissing of Summer Lawns album has given this latest offering the quality of a critical test, with much of her pop audience at stake. And those who are still eagerly clutching their copies of Blue and singing along with Court and Spark are destined to be disappointed again, because ironically she is still singing the same things.
Mitchell's work has always been highlighted by her stable of familiar characters, lovingly drawn by soon left behind as she carried on her search for love and life and some beautiful elusive intangible. Her familiar family is back again. Indeed, there are even some resurrections, as she stays in the Cactus Tree Motel and she is still leaving them in search of something finer. But how long can she continue searching? Like many other current artists, notably Neil Young, who plays harmonica on one track, Mitchell is at a crossroads, unwilling to continue her hopeful travels, unsure of her outcome, but afraid to stop.
Hejira, the name of her new album, means travelling, the theme underscored, in most of the tracks: searching and coming and going, and the constant fear that her goal may not exist. Her lyrics reveal her torn, and vulnerable. "I wish that he was here tonight/It's so hard to obey/His sad request of me to kindly to stay away/So this is how I hide the hurt/As the road leads cursed and charmed." Unfortunately, her music is equally torn and vulnerable.
To say that the melodies of this album lack the easy accessibility of her earlier work is to invoke a vast understatement: the music of Hejira is adequate at its best. At its worst, it degenerates to two-chord chanting to accompany her poetic flights; certainly not an enhancement in the case of such lyrics as "We're like America and Russia, baby," when concealing melodies would clearly be euthanasia. And even her better efforts can scarcely mask, "Tell those girls that you've got Joni/She's coming back home."
That is the underlying weakness of Hejira- self-centeredness and self-pity new to Mitchell's work. She has moved from the role of insightful observer to enraged participant. Enraged that the mores that she so brilliantly and wittily recorded could be turned against her. Occasionally her humor does crop up, as in "Song for Sharon," but more often we see her comfort in melancholy as she hears Benny Goodman playing real good, for free.
Hejira has its moments. Mitchell is a brilliant lyricist, and "Amelia" and "Song for Sharon" are reminiscent of some of her best works. Hopefully she will stop travelling and searching long enough to find something before her next album.
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