Like Neil Young's Tonight's the Night, or her own Blue, the album cover of Joni Mitchell's Hejira offers a revealing clue as to the nature of what's inside.
Cloaked in dull browns and blacks, with a vision of a desert highway penetrating the soul of the artist, Hejira's package serves as a visual metaphor for the music within, the "prisoner of the white lines of the freeway", as she terms it in the album's opening song. And although the concept is new to her music, the songs' stories and emotions are familiar Joni Mitchell.
In Hejira, we have Joni Mitchell the artist frustrated by Joni Mitchell the person who is plagued by the romantic disillusion and an inability to escape the sterility of her artistic mileau [sic]. And although her themes remain familiar there are no songs as memorable or musically accessible as a "Help Me", "Carrie" [sic] or "A Case of You". Hejira however does come part way in overcoming last year's problematic Hissing of Summer Lawns.
In a wise move, Joni has abandoned the ersatz jazz sound that had cluttered up her last album. Hejira instead witnesses a return to a more sparse sound. The music is predominantly guitar and percussion oriented and the type of rhythm provided by such an arrangement best frames her poetic-song style.
But as in the case of Summer Lawns, Hejira is difficult to listen to. Musically Joni's work has always been a bit eccentric and it is only coincidental that her music often becomes commercially attractive, for by and large she is after bigger game. But in her last two albums a pre-occupation with lyrical conceptualizing has developed to a point where her music has suffered in the process. Although stimulating and masterful lyrically, her songs have a musical foundation that is tedious. For the most part the emotional impact of Hejira is delivered by her lyrics and not the music. There is a haunting, gloomy feel that is emitted by her music although it is strangely beautiful, over a period of cuts it becomes somewhat overbearing.
However, because we are dealing with one of the most talented members of the pop music world's aristocracy such a normally destructive flaw does not hide the album's merit on other levels.
To begin with, one has to have a great deal of respect for the integrity of Joni Mitchell as an artist. Forever the dutiful clinician, Joni unflinchingly performs self-surgery in exhibiting all her scars and wounds to her public. No other artist in contemporary music dares to be as revealing.
And although it is easy to be cynical and denounce such indiscretions as self-indulgent posturing it is actually more accurate to say that Joni possesses a rare degree of honest sensivity [sic]. Perhaps a more valid criticism of such emotional prostitution is the question do we really care to continue to partake in albums that may be construed as mere medical updates on her particular problems?
However, what differentiates Joni Mitchell from the melo-dramatic [sic], self-pitying dirges from the likes of a Janis Ian, is the sheer capability of Joni Mitchell as a song writer. Even at her most personal moments she is forever honest and self-critical. Consequently, no matter how personal she may become, she is never pathetic.
In "Song For Sharon" she admits to one of her shortcomings at the risk of sounding self-centred [sic] or even promiscuous: "Well there is a whole world of noble cases/ And lovely landscapes to discover/ But all I really want to do right now/ Is...find another lover." Such personal candor makes it rather hard to feel either sorry or sentimental about her or her music.
Probing deeper than at any time since Blue, Joni comes as close as she ever as [sic] to pinpointing the hubris which is responsible for her unhappiness. The album's title song and "Amelia", a song spoken to a female confidante, best reveal such moments. In the latter she says, "Maybe I've never really loved/ I guess that is the truth/ I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes."
Personally, I feel that the times when Joni Mitchell best reveals her song-writing talents are in those instances when she can extricate herself from a situation and play the role of observer rather than participant. Such a time exists on the album in the tragic balled [sic] "Furry Sings the Blues", a song for and about the legendary blues many [sic] Furry Lewis.
However, it is love which stimulate [sic] her illusions and the bulk of her songs, and attempts on her part to take refuge in the roads does not help her escape the pain that such illusions create. Despite all her self-analysis she can at best remain only a temporary defector from the petty wars "only until love sucks her back that way."
And despite the degree of intensity and honesty that Joni Mitchell's lyrics bring to her songs, her musical highway journey in Hejira proves only as bearable as any prolonged trip. They're interesting to listen to once in a while but not as a steady diet. Such is the strange appeal of this particular album.
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