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The tip of the iceberg   Print

by Tim Lott
Sounds
November 27, 1976

Understand: Once and for all, understand:

Joni Mitchell is not a folk singer. She is a contemporary musician/poet/singer far ahead and far apart from the contemporary scene.

She is also an enigma. To unravel all the mysteries that Joni Mitchell offers is complex. After a year of frequent listenings, 'The Hissing Of Summer Lawns' still unfolds new insights at every play.

Like its predecessor, 'Hejira' -- meaning literally the flight of Mohammed from Mecca in AD 622, but in modern usage, any sort of flight or running away -- presents puzzles, albeit of a patently more accessible nature. The poetry is more reminiscent of an earlier period than 'Summer Lawns' -- relatively straightforward and personal rather than complex and biographical.

Yet intrigue remains, the essence of the Mitchell fascination.

The most immediate riddle appears on the sleeve. The artiste stands on a sheet of ice, a cloudy landscape superimposed over her torso showing a long road stretching into the distance.

White against the white background stands a girl in a wedding dress; in front of her, a male ballet dancer, posturing.

Speculation provides debatable solutions, with the dancer and the bride representing classical culture and traditional ties; the superimposed freeway is the road leading away from them. The definition of hejira lends credence to the explanation.

Of course, this could be light years from the truth, and as Mitchell states on 'Summer Lawns' it is not her intention to unravel personal mysteries for anyone.

So much for the complexities of packaging. Superficially at least, the content is less obscure.

The most obvious departures from the last album are the sparsity of the instrumental arrangements and the self-orientation of the word content.

Musically, 'Hejira' is scanty, though effective. No more than four instruments appear on any given track, usually centred around Mitchell's rhythm guitar and the structured bass playing of either Jaco Pastorious or Max Bennett.

Lyrical though more oblique in concept than, say, 'Court and Spark,' Mitchell is the chronicler of personal experience once again, as was always true before the detachment of 'Summer Lawns.'

But the uncluttered, simplistic element is not retrogressive. The stance succeeds completely because underneath there is a subtlety of atmosphere that is without parallel.

A theme, or at least a recurrent factor, is present on 'Hejira' -- that of travel, of shifting situations. On the opening cut, 'Coyote,' Mitchell is 'A prisoner of the white lines on the freeway.' On 'Amelia' she sleeps 'on the strange pillows of my wanderlust.' And 'Black Crow' -- 'There's a black crow flying/Dark and ragged/Tree to tree/ He's black as the highway that's leading me.' The final cut acts as a lyrical trailer for the entire album -- 'These are the clouds of Michaelangelo/Muscular with gods and sungold/Shine on your witness in the refuge of the roads.'

On a commercial level, this is manifestly the most non-instant album she has ever produced. Her unique style of using instrumentation as punctuation rather than as overblown soundtracking reaches full conclusion here.

For the most part, a basic drifting rhythm/bass track acts as foundation for the songs. And they are songs -- not poetry with musical fancy edges. Mitchell's melodies are as often subtle and rooted below the surface. They may not emerge until after many hearings and it is this lack of immediacy that makes her unpalatable to many except on a lyrical level.

Over these elusive melodies she scatters widely spaced instrumental texturing. There are no guitar solos, no bass solos, no extended non-vocal passages anywhere. Larry Carlton's unique sublime, singing guitar work slips around at the back of the mix, sliding in, momentarily taking control, then receding again. On the title track Abe Most contributes Goodman-esque clarinet work, only for a matter of seconds, then fades again appearing nowhere else on the album.

This singular use of ideas, the way components are introduced and discarded without overkill devaluation, is specifically what makes Mitchell unique in her genius as a composer.

The masterpiece within the masterpiece is the eight-minute 'Song For Sharon,' a private vista of experience and renunciation of convention that is almost callous in its realism: 'Dora says 'Have children'/Mama and Betsy say -- 'Find yourself a charity/Help the needy and the crippled/Or put some time into Ecology'/Well, there's a wide, wide world of noble causes/and lovely landscapes to discover/But all I really want to do, right now/Is . . . find another lover!'

Mitchell's utterly relaxed, completely intense voice achieves total communication, backed only by her own guitar, John Guerin's light drum touches and Max Bennett's inspired bass work.

'Song For Sharon' is really no more than a series of lyrical observations about herself; but her insight is as astute as ever -- 'A woman I know just drowned herself/The well was deep and muddy/She was just shaking off futility/Or punishing somebody.'

'Amelia' is perhaps the most immediately appealing piece on the album, a song about Amelia Earheart, the pioneering female aviator who mysteriously disappeared in the Twenties.

Larry Carlton's guitar responds exactly to the lyric -- when Mitchell sings 'The drone of flying engines/Is a song so wild and blue' he reflects the atmosphere with aerial, floating, electric phrases. She continues 'It scrambles time and seasons, if it gets through to you/Then your life becomes a travelogue of picture postcard charms' and Carlton now plays high and liquid, the feedback of movement and romance.

Mitchell albums take six months, not one weekend, to absorb. There are sure to be depths within 'Hejira' that escape initial impression. All the same, one track appears vaguely disappointing; 'Blue Motel Room.' The most basic of cuts, the words offer nothing of a particularly profound nature, and musically it is little more than an extension of 'Centrepiece.' As an uncomplicated love song it works well enough but stands slightly apart from the subtle inspiration that permeates the rest of the album.

One cut, 'Furry Sings The Blues,' features Neil Young contributing muted harmonies behind the lyric. Overkill is avoided again, the melancholic atmosphere is the more pronounced for Young's effective dischords. And Mitchell communicates as well as she has ever done with some striking metaphoric couplets -- 'Pawn shops glitter like gold tooth caps/In the grey decay/They chew the last few dollars off old Beale Street's carcass/Carrion and mercy.'

The title track, 'Hejira' is one of Mitchell's more depressing statements -- 'We all come and go unknown/Each so deep and superficial/Between the forceps and the stone' -- but musically it shines. Swooping acoustic guitars open the track superseded by Max Bennett's sharply inventive bass work, exploring and emphasising. A platform for perfect grace.

Joni Mitchell's artistry is difficult to measure against the backdrop of 1976. She is ahead of the contemporary scene in scope, intention and effect. Her music comes from five years on.

'Hejira' is a flight from musical convention. It is like 'The Hissing Of Summer Lawns,' one of the most important works written within the 'rock' idiom -- though the 'rock' convenience label is constricting and misleading.

Timeless and majestic, this is the music for the spirit.
Intellectual and inspired, this is music for the mind.
Rhythmic and subtle, this is music for the body.
The music of tomorrow, this is the tip of the iceberg.
Don't hear this album. Listen to it.

 

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