51:49 min • Asylum • November 23rd, 1976
The first Joni Mitchell album, Song to a Seagull, was released in 1968. To date she has released 19 studio albums and 2 live albums. Her name is a watchword for originality. Of the newspaper headlines on the cover of Prince’s Controversy, one simply read “Joni”. She appears again in the song ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker’ from his masterpiece Sign ‘O’ The Times. When Nik Kershaw wrote the song ‘Radio Musicola’, in which he rails against the music industry, he included the line “why can’t you let us do it like Joni does?” Joni herself sings, in the song ‘Taming the Tiger’, from the 1998 album of the same name, “I’m a runaway from the record biz, from the hoods in the hood and the whiney white kids”.
Joni Mitchell is the industry rebel, the outsider, the voice of reason against crass commercialism. And so she has become a benchmark for those that understand the kudos of originality and seek to be outside the mainstream.
Mitchell started out as a folk singer, and like Dylan was a poet devoted to the acoustic sound. This period of her work peaked with the 1971 album Blue. If you ask most Joni fans what their favourite album is, the answer is generally Blue. This also goes for those who play on the outsider status of being a Joni fan. In those cases it is usually the only record of hers that they know. I mean, Sarah McLachlan covered the title track, man!
Blue is probably the most accessible of Mitchell’s records. Each self-contained song tells a story that is matched by an emotion that is equally well pitched. It is about the angst of young love, for the most part. Yet it is with Hejira, her ninth album, that Mitchell had reached a maturity in which her imagination and talent burst the banks of traditional song-writing. She had shaken off the acoustic sound with the 1974 album Court and Spark, and this had increased her popularity. She started to experiment with jazz, a sound that can be heard on her 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns. That experimentation led to the stripped-bare record Hejira, which, unlike its predecessors, was markedly not commercial.
Hejira is 52 minutes long, and yet contains 9 tracks. The title track is almost 7 minutes long and is followed by the epic ‘Song for Sharon’, which is closer to 9 minutes. The majority of the tracks comprise the sound of Mitchell’s guitar (electric and rhythm), and the fretless bass played by jazz musician Jaco Pastorius. Neil Young plays harmonica on ‘Furry Songs the Blues’. The acoustic guitar appears only on one track, ‘Blue Hotel Room’ and the percussion throughout is, for the most part, understated.
Hejira is a contemplative work about travel, as well as the alienation & observation that accompanies the traveller. Mitchell matches the sense of her lyrics perfectly with songs that work at their own pace and are not shaped by the tradition of verse and chorus, and the limitations that lead to radio-play. They do not follow predictable patterns, and because it is not about what appears on the surface, it becomes necessary for the listener to adapt, to really listen. It challenges the sense of what popular music is and can be.
If you think of the music of the mid to late ‘70s, of the pre-punk era, the dominant sound is that of disco. Hejira is not tied to time and trends anything other than the time and trends in Mitchell’s development. It is the most out-of-time of all her records.
Take the track ‘A Strange Boy’, which recalls the singer’s attraction to, and conflict with, a young man she does not feel has reached maturity. There is all the excitement of what playing the rebel with this boy can be. Then there is the tension that results from demanding that he also behave as she thinks he sometimes should, as a grown-up. That tension is mirrored in the percussion, which weaves in and out of a track ruled by electric and rhythm guitar, and in a melody that undulates with the mood of the singer.
What a strange strange boy
He sees the cars as sets of waves
Sequences of mass and space
He sees the damage in my face
The shape of the song, the direction of the song, is determined by the story told by the lyrics. The lead characters are played by the rhythm electric guitars respectively, and the percussion reflects the tension between them. There is a real audacity in writing a song in this manner, which is stripped to its basic components and as a result resonates with feeling.
There is a maturity and idiosyncrasy to Hejira that is not often witnessed in popular music. It is the product of an artist at the peak of her creativity who also knows that after this act of observation she must return to everyday life. This is a statement that not only describes her subject matter but the creative process she has undertaken in bringing the songs to life. As she writes at the end of the title track,
I’m travelling in some vehicle
I’m sitting in some café
A defector from the petty wars
Until love sucks me back that way