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Joni Mitchell’s ‘Hejira’: An Underappreciated Masterpiece Print-ready version

Take a listen to the songwriting, the sound, and the work of Jaco Pastorius, John Guerin, and Larry Carlton.

by Ken Hymes
Culture Sonar
January 13, 2017

Everyone has albums they come back to again and again, albums they would take to their proverbial desert island. Such albums have made a deep connection to the heart, and to life experience, sometimes in ways we barely understand, or only slowly unpack as we grow older. For me there’s no contest. The album I never tire of, which speaks to me instantly and always, whose meaning has evolved and deepened for me over time: Joni Mitchell’s Hejira.

A bit of brush-clearing first:

I have many friends who simply can’t get past some aspects of Mitchell’s performances. There’s a prickliness in some of her work (and most definitely in her public statements), which I believe was well-earned through the struggle of navigating the classic rock boys club, but which can be confusing and off-putting at times. Her voice is a frequent focus of criticism, many finding it “pretentious” or “mannered.” I see the truth in these critiques, but at least on her best work (and I consider this album the best of her best), the rewards far outweigh the obstacles.

With that out of the way: if you haven’t heard Hejira, go right now and do that. It’s on YouTube in its entirety, though I strongly recommend buying it. Nothing I say can do it justice, but I can highlight some of what is so powerful about it in my view.

Mitchell’s rhythm guitar playing is unique and gorgeous. As elsewhere in her work, she relies on a wide range of bespoke tunings to achieve distinctive and rich voicings. On the opening track, “Coyote,” for example, she tunes to CGDFCE, a very odd setup which makes the hooky, haunting, chugging rhythm part quite easy to play.

Hejira is in some sense a concept album, documenting a long road trip across the country and back, after a tour which ended early in recrimination and romantic disappointment. There is a strong sense of place in every single song, and Mitchell evokes conversations and situations effortlessly and compellingly, giving other people in her life and travels a voice, telling fragments of their stories in ways which make them feel like people I have known myself. This kind of lyric writing is just plain hard to do well, and she makes it sound easy.

Mitchell has said that she found the "dead, distant" bass sound of 70s recordings very unsatisfying, and was told she should talk to Jaco Pastorius. If all this album accomplished was to give us the glory of the parts Jaco overdubbed on four of the songs, it would be a treasure. But it goes beyond the sheer beauty of those bass parts...Jaco seemed to understand Mitchell's music intuitively, and everything he does makes the rest of her conception shine more brightly. The interplay between his bass and her guitar and voice feels like a playful but serious conversation between old friends.

And it wasn't just Jaco who Mitchell gave scope to here. John Guerin on drums and Larry Carlton on electric guitar deliver some their best, most tasteful work, with just the right amount of assertiveness, skirting a line between folk-pop and jazz in a way I've never heard matched.

I can't know what Hejira's deeper meaning is to Mitchell, beyond the narrative elements she is playing with, but to me it evokes a deep longing, and serves as a somewhat sardonic but heartfelt elegy for failed dreams and broken promises, personal and social.

The atmosphere on this album sticks to me like glue, gets in everywhere, and every musical and production choice supports that effect. Mitchell and her producer Henry Lewy achieved great variety between tracks without once violating the sense of a continuous and encompassing world - it is a spectacular achievement.

And what is atmosphere on an album but the result of sound? So finally, that's what makes Hejira what it is, more than any of the aspects I have discussed. It is a sound which envelops and caresses, teases and reveals, soothes and surprises, gently prodding the listener to offer attention to the story of "this hitcher...this prisoner, of the fine white lines, of the white lines on the free free way."

Mitchell's overall body of work has its issues, and her relationship with fame and the business of music has been...challenging. But no accounting of the history of modern songwriting and recording is complete without consideration of this kaleidoscopically beautiful album.

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