Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Classic Joni Mitchell albums - Hejira

As an artist whose favoured means of expression is painting, Joni Mitchell empathises with the view that the true artist should make no attempt to please their audience, only to please themselves. As she stated on the live Miles of Aisles album: “nobody said to Van Gogh, paint A Starry Night  again man!”.

Having boldly expanded her musical vocabulary on the 1975 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns, with tremendous results, Joni was stung by the criticism it attracted (see the previous Joni thread on THOSL). The album had depth, sophistication, gorgeous harmonies and wonderful, gifted musicians. What’s not to like?  It’s hard to believe people (especially reviewers in the US) could have been so angry and disappointed by it. But it wasn't Court and Spark or Blue and people don’t like change, especially when their favourite artist becomes less accessible. 
A year after ‘Hissing’ she released Hejira, a quite different record musically, and with more of the familiar confessional style in its lyrics. As such, it is perhaps her most revered record from the late 70s. The music retained a density and maturity, with lyrics forming the bedrock of the album. They are amongst the best she ever wrote and in his review for Melody Maker in 1976, Michael Watts noted that Hejira is “the first Joni Mitchell record for which the song sheet is indispensable. Her use of pretty marvellous. As a popular lyricist in the romantic tradition, she has no equal outside the Broadway musical.”

A hejira is a journey of discovery and the bleak terrain of Joni’s hejira is reflected in the soul-searching of the lyrics and the simple yet haunting musical accompaniment. Joni's distinctive guitar voicing came to the fore on this album and it also marks the beginning of a prominent role for the electric bass on her records. The inclusion of Jaco Pastorius in her musical backdrop was an inspired move. I think it represents one of the all-time great musical collaborations; a unique sound and interplay that brought out the best in both Joni and Jaco.

Mitchell said of Hejira: "the whole album was really inspired... I wrote it while traveling cross-country by myself and there is this restless feeling throughout it... The sweet loneliness of solitary travel.” This album is the one where Joni asserts, or reasserts, in the face of such criticism, her need to evolve.

On the DVD ‘A Woman of Heart and Mind’ she tells how in 1971 she had rejected Graham Nash’s marriage proposal, because she felt she couldn’t subsume her desire for personal growth to become just a part of someone else; that she owed it to previous generations to go out and live life to the full. On Hejira, the song Amelia is as much about Joni as it is about Amelia Earhart. Joni said: "I was addressing it from one solo pilot to another... sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do."
 Joni's performance of 'Coyote' at The Band's farewell concert
 was one of the highlights of The Last Waltz

Joni the existentialist seeks out meaning in her emotional turmoil, while also reflecting an awareness of mortality. On the title track, Joni sings…”we all come and go unknown / each so deep and superficial / between the forceps and the stone.” While on the final track, Refuge of the Roads, the image is of “a photograph of the earth / taken from the moon / and you couldn't see a city / on that marbled bowling ball / or a forest or a highway / or me here least of all.”
The original Norman Seeff photo used on the montage for the Hejira album cover
Reviewers at the time, while appreciating the lyricism, didn’t exactly warm to the music. Creem magazine’s Ken Tucker wrote: “It took me almost two weeks of steady listening to decide that this is a good album. I knew from the first that Hejira contained her most audacious lyrics—the preciseness of her imagery is extraordinary and unobtrusive, the latter no small part of her achievement. But I sure didn't hear any catchy melodies."

Again, reviewers could not resist attacking Joni for her movement away from the popular song. Watts spoils an otherwise excellent review of Hejira by suggesting that “On Summer Lawns only Shades Of Scarlet Conquering could be said to be tuneful and accessible and even that was a difficult song.”  I mean, that’s a frankly ridiculous comment, but it is a good illustration of the limitations of music criticism at the time. Rolling Stone’s review said that while “it recoups much of the ground lost with last year's The Hissing of Summer Lawns, both musically and lyrically… in the end Hejira is a bit too cerebral for its own good.”

All this probably made Joni even more determined to strike out on her own. One of my favourite lines from the Hejira album is “and we laughed at how our perfection would always be denied.”  The lyric has many meanings, I’m sure, but it could easily be applied to the album itself - and to the purity of Joni Mitchell's artistic expression in the late 70s. 
A beautiful rendition of 'Amelia' performed at Wembley Arena in 1983. 
I was there and I have never been to a better sounding arena show.

See also:

Joni Mitchell in the 70s - The Hissing of Summer Lawns

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