A great deal of nonsense has been written about Joni Mitchell, some of it by Joni Mitchell herself. Her songs have formed an ongoing diary of the most personal sort. They are also practically her only public statements. She has become more reclusive with the years: interviews are now so rare that they're jumped on and dissected by followers who feel both titillated and frustrated by her insularity. The result is that each new record is preceded by months of speculation, rumour, and gossip. Such talk sometimes reveals as much about her life as the albums themselves, though each release always contains a few musical surprises. It has been that way from the start, when she made the transition from Canadian to North American, from "copyright artist" to star in her own right, from folk performer to something quite different. So it is with her new LP, HEJIRA (Asylum 7E-1087).
One of the rumours that predated HEJIRA was that Tom Waits would accompany her on several of the numbers. Waits is the blues cut-up whose songs and monologues satirize the night-life and lowlife of Los Angeles with its cheap sex, bad food, and bloodshot eyes. The story turned out to be erroneous, but was nonetheless important because having Waits on the album is exactly the sort of thing Mitchell WOULD have done if she had thought of it. Waits' image is based on his being the very index of sleaziness. He represents what has become of the blues tradition in a society that seems to be collapsing on itself. Mitchell is always searching for anything fashionable in the hopes of discovering something she has lost. She gives the impression of being the sort of person who, were she into religion, would fondle rattlesnakes and speak in tongues - and then quit as quickly as she began. It is of such fleeting enthusiasms and disappointments that her music is made.
The speculation about her music, however, is nothing compared to that about her personal life. That is logical enough considering that much of her discontinuous musical journal is concerned with past and present lovers. Scott Fitgerald once said that Hemingway seemed to require a new wife in order to write each major novel. The same notion is current about Mitchell; she does little or nothing to discourage it. For all the personal references and honesty, however, her songs have immense impact because of what they say of lovers generally. Practically all the meaningful and important love songs (and hate songs) of the past five years have been written by women. Mitchell, perhaps not always knowingly, has become the premier critic of contemporary sexual relations, which in the late 1970s is what being a critic of society has come down to.
In all her songs, though, there is a note of detachment. There is always a reticence, a drawing back from total involvement, a reversion to mere poetics. Such hesitation is what gives her lyrics their special objectivity and appeal. It is tempting to state that the pulling back is somehow tied to her being a Canadian. She is part of a certain stratum of American society, yet removed from it. That ambivalence comes through on a number of the cuts on HEJIRA, including "Amelia," a song about Amelia Earhart.
A ghost of aviation
she was swallowed by the sky
or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly
like Icarus ascending
on beautiful foolish arms.
Amelia, it was just a false alarm.
On first hearing, the album has all the hallmarks of Los Angeles music. Percussion, bass, and vibes are used in a way practically synonymous with studio musicians centered there. The sound is clearly Mitchell's doing, since by now she calls her own production shots. Even the cover (her own design) is very West Coast. It shows her in a fur coat and beret looking like someone who was married to Man Ray, circa 1936. Her face is the main component of a politely surreal collage that is bohemianism elevated to the level of trendy, European sophistication. The songs themselves, however, contradict all that. Even when she brings it down an octave-and-a-half from her early soprano, her voice is much too bird-like and unraunchy to be Los Angeles incarnate. And her interest in jazz, which formerly was for the most part theoretical, has mushroomed here into something quite distinctive.
The present album lacks the melodic diversity of BLUE (1971), which remains her most satisfying LP to date. HEJIRA does contain, however, some of the best lyrics she has ever written. Some are so tight and measured that in the hands of someone else (Leonard Cohen or perhaps Loudon Wainright) they would tend to suggest their own melodies.
I'm travelling in some vehicle,
I'm sitting in some cafe,
a defector from the petty wars
that shell shock love away.
There's comfort in melancholy
when there's no need to explain.
It's just as natural as the weather
in this moody sky today.
Mitchell, though, does not allow them to take control. She fits them into melodic lines that test her great skill at phrasing - that way she has with a song that makes her compositions almost impossible for anyone else to sing. She bunches, stretches, and condenses phrases in unusual ways, somewhat like a poet whose breath control is as much a part of his writing as the images on the page. That is as before. Here, however, she is often working with quite long lines and ones less disjointed than in the past. The lines simply have more syllables and so are more difficult to bend into shape. The lyrics give a bit, the melodies give a bit, and the total effect is more jazz-like than earlier. It is as though she were using her voice as another instrument; in fact she is creating an almost contrapuntal relationship between melody line and lyric.
Each of her LPs contains something new, or at least something one wouldn't expect from her. LADIES OF THE CANYON, for instance, slipped first into calypso and then into rock with "Big Yellow Taxi." On FOR THE ROSES, she faded the songs instead of writing endings for them, and used four-letter words. Here the surprises come both in the music and the lyrics. There is one song about her sense of outsiderliness in visiting a decrepit old black bluesman:
W.C. Handy I'm rich and I'm fey
and I'm not familiar with what you played
but I get such strong impressions of your heyday
looking up and down old Beale Street.
Ghosts of darktown society
come right out of the bricks at me.
Like it's Saturday night
they're in their finery
dancing it up and making deals.
Furry sings the blues.
Not illogically, the song is written as an imitation blues, but the production bogs down, only partly because of the harmonica work by Neil Young. A bigger and more successful surprise is "Blue Motel Room," which, true to her eclecticism but striking all the same, is an old-fashioned, slit-skirt, reclining-on-the-piano torch song such as might have been written for an early Lauren Bacall movie. It confirms, musically, a change also evident in the lyric of another song, "A Strange Boy": that, much to her amazement and sorrow, she is getting older while her constant search for a sense of belonging becomes more desperate.
Her songs about lovers are representative and well-thumbed. Active disciples can recite evidence suggesting that such and such a line refers to such and such a man, later discarded or gone away. In a way, these songs have been the thread running through her music for the past decade. It is only now for the first time, however, that her stance in them has really changed. "A Strange Boy," as the title would suggest and as the lyric explains at some length, is about someone much younger than herself, a fact that adds a new dimension to the disappointment characteristic of her. The song would seem to say that, at thirty-three, Mitchell now finds herself in the role of the Older Woman. And THAT, it seems to me, is VERY Los Angeles, VERY American, very everything that has both attracted and repelled her since she left Canada so long ago.