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Desert island albums #1: Joni Mitchell — Hejira (1976) Print-ready version

by Mike Taylor
The Reinvigorated Programmer
April 8, 2014

In BBC Radio 4’s venerable programme Desert Island Discs, a guest is invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island, and allowed to choose eight pieces of music to take with them. (The quaint “discs” in the title of course refers to gramophone records; I for one welcome the BBC’s refusal to retitle the programme Desert Island Digital Audio Files.)

I think this is a fascinating exercise, and one that I’ve often toyed with doing myself. But as noted in my “what I’ve been listening to in Year X” posts [2009, 2010, 2011, 2012], I listen much more to albums than to individual songs, so my habits don’t really fit the Desert Island Discs format.

Well, badgers to that: this is my blog, and I can write it how I want. So I picked eight albums that I love, and that I’ve loved for several years (to avoid the inevitable flavour-of-the-month bias). My only rule was that no artist could be represented more than once. My plan is to write fairly extended essays about each one, in no particular order. So without further ado, here is the first: Joni Mitchell’s 1976 folk/jazz/rock album Hejira.

I had a terrible time choosing just one of Joni Mitchell’s albums. An earlier draft of this list had her 1971 album, Blue, and there are all sorts of good reasons for that. I’ve loved Blue since I first heard it in 2000, but for a while in 2013 it gripped me intensely in a way that nothing has since I first started listening to the Beatles in 1980. I listened to almost literally nothing else for a solid week. Whenever I was on public transport, I listened to it on the iPod. I’d have a book with me, too — I read all the time — but I kept finding my attention being pulled away from what I was reading to what I was hearing. Because Blue is just superb, the most intense yet ambiguous confessional folk album you could ever wish to hear.

Everywhere the songs contradict themselves. Joni protests that she has control of her heart — “I could drink a case of you, but I would still be on my feet” — but the fragile, strung-out delivery belies that self-possession. “Richard, you haven’t changed”, she tells an old flame, but he evidently has. At the end of that song, in which Joni rages against Richard’s cynicism, she finds herself drunk, alone in dark cafe, just as cynical as him. Even the hippie-dopey California, an ode to home, is shot through with rueful cameos, and sense of loss at everything she’s left behind. All these complexities are carried by music that’s always sparse — always dominated by Joni’s voice and her own accompaniment on a single instrument — but that instrument switches between guitar, piano and dulcimer. Surprisingly it’s the last of these — an instrument that I usually loathe — that turns out to be most effective on this album: its insistent melancholy drone underscores the wearied quality of the lyrics while leaving plenty of room for Joni’s voice to fill the space with everything from the rueful frivolity of All I Want to the plaintive reminiscence of A Case of You.

So Blue is an absolutely tremendous album. And I mention this because I now want to explain why Hejira is even better.

Five years on from Blue, Joni’s voice has changed significantly — in both senses. The sound emerging from her throat is deeper, harder. The smoking has begun to have an effect, but not yet a detrimental one. She sounds less like a girl and more like a woman. But her voice in the artistic sense has also changed by the time of Hejira. Blue wears its heart on its sleeve; it’s nakedly emotional, painfully vulnerable. By contrast Hejira, at least on the surface, is a much more self-possessed record — the work of someone who seems more at ease with herself; or, at least, more in command of herself.

Musically, too, Hejira is more sophisticated than Blue. Where the earlier album mostly used a keening voice over sparse single-instrument accompaniment, the words of Hejira float over a desert landscape of harmonically ambiguous jazz. Sometimes propulsively driving, as in Black Crow and especially the opener Coyote, sometimes hesitant and exploratory, as in Amelia and Song for Sharon, the musical substrate of Hejira never takes the obvious path, instead finding ways to challenge the listener.

That makes the album hard work. There’s no denying it. You can listen to, say, Joni’s Ladies of the Canyon album and immediately like and appreciate songs like Morning Morgantown, Big Yellow Taxi and The Circle Game. (Thinking about it, that’s probably the best album for a Joni Mitchell newcomer to start with.) To a lesser extent, you can listen to Blue and enjoy All I Want and California. Hejira is a much less approachable album. There’s really no song on it that invites the listener in: you have the feeling that Joni wrote and recorded it mostly for herself, and that if anyone else likes it too then that’s just a bonus.

Instead of a handful of standout tracks and some filler, Hejira forms a coherent and consistent whole, intricately constructed with every song seeming to tie in with its predecessors and successors. Joni is usually classified as a folk singer, and as such would probably balk at the description of Hejira as a concept album: but it is one, just as much as Dark Side of the Moon or Days of Future Passed. The whole album consist of road songs of one kind or another: the reportage of Coyote, the lament of Amelia, the second-hand nostalgia of Furry Sings the Blues, and of course the meditation that is the title track, Hejira itself (the title is from the Arabic word for journey or pilgrimage).

The emotional thread that runs through the songs is a deep-seated ambivalence about love and commitment, about solitude and companionship. A few of the songs spell this out: Song for Sharon is pretty explicitly a self-administered therapy session in which Joni tries to get to the bottom of her own conflict between the longing for love and the need to be free. A Strange Boy is the closest thing to a conventional love song, but it’s replete with What Ifs and Buts and Maybes. Blue Motel Room, the album’s stylistic outlier with its cabaret-blues feel, finishes up with an offer to her man: “You lay down your sneaking round the town, honey / And I’ll lay down the highway”. Yet even that reconciliation, in the album’s penultimate song, is immediately undone by the closer, Refuge of the Roads: it’s the closest Hejira approaches to an emotionally straightforward statement, and it comes down firmly on the side of solitude, of perpetual change, and of isolation.

What makes all this beautiful instead of merely exasperating is how perfectly the music complements the lyrics. Coyote forensically documents a one-night-stand that never had the potential to be anything more: “No regrets, Coyote / we just come from such different sets of circumstances”, the song begins. Then “There’s no comprehending / Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes / And the lips you can get / And still feel so alone / And still feel related“. The music reflects the tone of the song: the combination of propulsive electro-acoustic guitar and high bass harmonics somehow contrive to feel both desperate and coolly ironic, detached: there is an emotional reserve, something held back, and the refrain line perfectly captures that pull-push self-deception. “You just picked up a hitcher”, she sings: “a prisoner of the white lines of the freeway”.

Amelia is even more ambiguous musically. Lyrically, the song is ostensibly addressed to pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart, who was lost at sea in 1937. But this is blended so completely with first-person narrative that it’s hard to tell where the lines are, or even whether there are any. “Oh Amelia, it was just a false alarm”, she repeatedly sings, but is she really warning herself? By the final occurrence of the refrain line, there is a definite shift towards the autobiographical:

I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel
To shower off the dust
And I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust
I dreamed of seven-forty-sevens
Over geometric farms
Dreams, Amelia: dreams and false alarms.

I’ve referred to refrain lines in both of the opening songs, and they are a theme that recurs throughout Hejira. Not one of the songs has anything like a conventional chorus: just a single line that bookends wandering discursive verses, drawing them together. There’s not even that in some songs: for example, Song For Sharon runs for nine minutes without once repeating a line. This, I am sure, is by design. Hejira rejects the comforting familiarity of a chorus in favour of a constant restless pressing. That’s reflected in the harmonic language, too. It’s difficult or impossible to nail down what chords are being used in many of the songs; for some, I could hardly even say what key they’re in. Most albums would use this harmonic tension as a setup, to make the resolution more satisfying when it comes. But Hejira‘s not interested in resolutions. Amelia wilfully refuses to come to rest in a recognisable key because Amelia herself can never rest; and neither can Joni.

Hejira is impossible to sing along with. It’s not just the lack of choruses. Even if you learn all the verses, the timing of Joni’s delivery is so idiosyncratic that you just can’t track it. It’s an album that positively rejects performance by other singers. I’ve used multiple songs from Blue at the folk club, but I doubt I will ever attempt any of Hejira‘s songs. It’s not just that they’re difficult; it’s that they’re so personal, so rooted in specific incident, particular states of mind and transitions of thought, that trying to reproduce them — or worse, reinterpret them — would feel like a violation.

Paradoxically, though, the extremely personal is the route to the universal. Songs that try to work in universals have an unfortunate tendency to degenerate into bland generalities — or worse, cliches. Like Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell goes in the opposite direction, using a few carefully picked specifics to sketch a situation that, while personal, has universal resonances. In my own life I’ve never felt the way that Joni does in the songs of Hejira; but where my own thoughts and feelings have ever approached aspects of those states, Hejira illuminates them. It’s an album that leaves me with better developed empathy. It makes me understand what it would be like to be someone else.

If there is an emotional arc in Hejira, it’s a gradual shift from the no-consequences hunger and desperation of Coyote to the resignation to, or even embrace of, loneliness in Refuge of the Roads. But it’s never quite that simple with Joni. Every song is hedged about with reservations, with the promise or threat that tomorrow’s conclusion will be different from today’s. There are no conclusions to be had.

In the end, Hejira is a sad album: not because of what it sets out to do, which it does perfectly, but because of what it says about Joni. The music may be more mature than that of Blue; the voice is certainly that of a woman who has grown. But for all that, at the core of Hejira there’s still a little lost girl who hasn’t worked out whether or when or even how to commit to a relationship. No amount of driving across America and chronicling the people and places can hide that.

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Added to Library on September 17, 2015. (1390)

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