Having dramatically extended the scope and scale of her self-produced recording style since 1973, Joni Mitchell now executes an equally radical retraction of that context on "Hejira" to again explore the small ensemble setting. If that sounds like one step forward, one step back, it's not. Melodically and instrumentally, the new songs revise her earlier, more intimate studio approach, but through impressionistic arrangements and Mitchell's subtle but pervasive production coloring (achieved with engineer and longtime coproducer Henry Lewy), the resulting mood and perspective achieve a distinctive unity.
For those admirers gained during her commercial crest ("Court and Spark"), the move may prove jarring. Yet Mitchell's return to a more modest framework was anticipated in last year's experimental "The Hissing of Summer Lawns." In "Court and Spark," a lavish and richly detailed orchestral emphasis, complemented by more aggressive rhythm playing and expansive vocal harmonies, charged her songs with cinematic intensity, underscoring the ongoing conflict between romantic mythology and the darker lessons of experience central to much of Mitchell's work. The evolution of that thematic issue influenced the more restrained, yet intricate jazz settings of "Hissing," which cooled its predecessor's passionate pop dynamics to comply with a looser, less structured melodic style dictated by the artist's increasingly convoluted narrative stance.
On "Hejira," that cooling process continues, coupled with a revived melodic definition that shares the evocative modal harmonic sense visible in her writing. The session crew has been minimized to a basic handful of elements, all texturally conceived: Rhythm sections are reined to a nearly subliminal yet elastic pulse, solos are submerged into the fluid, massed rhythm guitars played by Mitchell (who makes judicious use of electronics to achieve a rounded, thicker tone), and wind instruments and percussion are similarly overlaid to emphasize a total harmonic shape rather than melodic detail.
The balance between a modal compositional focus and the abstracted instrumental filigree provided by her support (with guitarist Larry Carlton, acoustic bassist Jaco Pastorius, and percussionists Bobbye Hall and Victor Feldman standing out) remains coherent throughout, making the LP's most immediate impact a cumulative one.
The songs treat familiar Mitchell motifs - brief lovers encountered as demonic agents for spiritual release, friends reunited across cultural distances, self-reliant heroines still grappling with the chains of sexual and romantic convention - both symbolically and in direct narratives. While Mitchell's perspective is closer to "Blue" and "For the Roses" in its confessional intimacy, there are glimpses of the more journalistic sense of detail and characterization explored on "Hissing," and the combination makes the songs more emotionally engaging than the last album's elaborately visualized scenes. The elegiac *Amelia* and *Refuge of the Roads* echo the artist's often vehement rejection of mundane social convention and white-collar materialism - the skyscraper wasteland that has become a prominent feature in her emotional landscape - but the current vignettes reflect a greater compassion than the often embittered tableaux of "Hissing."
"Hejira" is a risk for Joni Mitchell, even in the afterglow of international acceptance at the broadest level, for the subdued intensity of these new performances demands far more from her audience than the heady romantic bloom that made "Court and Spark" so attractive to radio programmers as well as confirmed fans. Yet the risk is well taken. This album reaffirms Mitchell's commitment to a more intimately conveyed and humanly scaled approach to her psychic and emotional oddyseys, an approach that here yields poetic and lyrical depth worth the risky commercial odds.