Joni Mitchell: Hejira, 1976
I’m back! And although I haven’t been at this blogging thing for very long, I think it’s safe to say that this is a rather uncommon entry. My reasons for writing on Hejira, (an album that will mark both my first blog on something recorded before my own birth, as well as my first blog on an album I haven’t already become acquainted with) require a bit of back-story:
You see, Mondays are my sabbath. I began practicing sabbath on Mondays when I was on staff at church, making it very impossible to rest on a work day, and I guess I’ve kept it because rest for me means sleeping in, and Sunday morning service doesn’t let me do that. However, this semester I have a class with enough reading to occupy my far more than 7 days a week, and this week in particular I have been asked to finish George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a 621 page novel. Being fiction, I decided I would afford to let it make up a large part of Monday.
All of this to say that I went to my favorite coffee spot with my favorite person to read and caffeinate, but was unable to make it there without stopping at my favorite shop on the Drive: Audiopile. I flipped through the Joni Mitchel section, looking for Blue and picking up Clouds immediately, when Beth suggested we buy Hejira too (“it’s only $5!”).
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve never written a blog about an album I haven’t previously listened to. Usually I have to spend a little more time with it, get to know it intimately, take it out on a few dates on my iPod. Not this time. I resolved to blog this album as I realized how cohesive it is. The instruments are nearly limited to soft reverb-ed guitar, a bass, and barely noticeable percussion. The few times that any shift occurs, it stands out and begs to be asked regarding its intentions.
Also, this is no album of extremes. You won’t find anything as emotionally saturated as Both Sides Now or as cheerful as Chelsea Morning. This is not the album on which Joni teaches cold English housewives how to feel (thanks Emma Thompson in Love Actually). Instead it will tell us stories, paint us pictures, and generally allow me to relax (even reading victorian lit) on my sabbath.
Hejira opens with Coyote, the reason Beth decided to purchase the record, which drives us straight into the action of the sound of road-tripping across America. Appropriate, since it’s the setting for Joni’s inspiration for this collection: “Hejira” references an Arabic word meaning journey, and all the songs being written on a solitary drive from Maine to L.A. It’s a theme that we’re introduced to as soon as we pick up the cardboard record sleeve picturing an open highway stretching further than the eye can see (set within Joni’s too thick torso… that’s just weird).
I try to pick up my novel, but instead Beth and I launch into a conversation about the relationship between Joni’s lyrics and chord structures. We decide that comparisons can be made to a recitative section in opera, where the point is really the dialogue and not the melody. Joni often sounds as if she’s half-consciously telling us a story without worry for matching the climax with any kind of “chorus”. And the music seems to wait for her, only moving on when she seems to have finished a thought. I think this has a lot to do with the interaction between her and one of the most influential bassists of all time, but I’ll talk about that soon enough.
Amelia settles into the more continuous tone of the record, which is slowly reflective, and connects her themes of womanhood and journeying with one of the most famous female adventurers: Amelia Earhart. Her life and death inspires Joni to imagine possible destinations and tragedies, both worth the risk of journey: “till you get there yourself you never really know, where some have found their paradise, others just come to harm…” and draws in the inevitable and linked themes of escape and anonymity.
Furry Sings the Blues is apparently a reference to a ultra-popular country blues guitarist, Furry Lewis, of whom I know nothing about. But if you’re talking about the blues, why not feature harmonica? And if you’re going to feature harmonica, why not get Neil Young to make an album cameo? I don’t know what he’s playing, because it certainly doesn’t sound like cross harp. It’s almost as if an entirely different song is playing in the background – probably only Young was confident enough to play something so mis-matched. I think it works, and certainly shows off what a crisp harp soloist he is. Hooray for a collaboration between Canada’s two best folkers. Is that a word? oh well…
Finally the album’s title track, Hejira, the only song I recognize much. I almost want to copy out her entire first verse, but instead I’ll tell you to check it out yourself. Which reminds me. Mitchell is a freaking poet. I mean, I suppose it’s fairly common to say this of a folk singer-songwriter, but really, the same thing that causes me to say things like, “where the heck is the melody?” give me the feeling like it’s story time, and I’m cuddled up in a blanket hanging on every word. Here we also get the one other highly notable instrumental change. With a reference to Benny Goodman, subtle clarinet lines emerge. (Yeah, a clarinet can be subtle. It was news to me too!)
It was also during Hejira that I finally picked up the sleeve wondering who the heck was playing those bass lines. No, “bass line” doesn’t even describe them. “Counter-melodies on the electric bass” is a much better description, although I didn’t seem to notice this beauty except for during Coyote. Soon enough it all makes sense. Jaco Pastorius, who changed bass playing for the world, apparently collaborated with Mitchell a few times, and this is one of them. Each song he’s featured on pops out of the texture of the record like one of those high-def scenes of a flower blossoming on Planet Earth. He shows off the range of the bass, even throwing his famous harmonics into the mix without any virtuoso show-offy-ness. I can’t understand why he’s not used on every track of Hejira. Maybe Mitchell believes in too much of a good thing? Seriously though, where Joni lacks melody, I find myself more likely to sing a long to Jaco in this song and later on Black Crow.
Song for Sharon, I’m sorry to say, has me thinking about George Eliot’s Middlemarch. As Joni reflects on a dichotomy between marriage and independence, I reflect on what a different sort of question that is in the 1830’s setting of the characters of my book. I even pick it up and read a little further, though it’s rather obvious that I am far more interested in listening and writing this by now.
Black Crow might be my favorite track on the album. The song has a destination like the bird of subject, and plans to arrive by grooving out. It retains a certain amount of the blues that shows up everywhere else on Hejira, but like some of my more conscientious lecturers who will let us take stretch breaks, Mitchell recognizes that in order to keep from falling asleep we need to move along with the vehicle. I can’t help it, here is my favorite bit:
In search of love and music my whole life has been, Illumination, corruption, and diving, diving, diving, diving, diving down to pick up on every shiny thing…
And yes, I did count the number of divings.
Blue Room Motel dwells on a lover who is waiting for her back home. Why? I’m done with her feeling sorry for herself. She can reflect all she wants on life, but to be pining away for some guy who isn’t even apart of this grand journey? Really? Nearing the end of the album, I suppose we’re nearing LA with Joni, but I am bored by these whiney blues. Thank the Lord that she ends with another collaboration with Jaco instead of this tripe.
Refuge of the Road doesn’t arrive anywhere, but leaves us in the journey; the hejira. Continually displacing us in the progression and resolving back into the comfortable and familiar, just like the highway clearly is refuge to her. Now I’m going to have to download this album so I can experience it on the open road as it was conceived and probably meant to be heard, though Joni’s voice cuts through cleaner on vinyl than anywhere. Well, probably it’s even better live. But that’s just conjecture.
Back to Middlemarch for me. Please forgive my gaps between albums – I doubt this semester will be very blog friendly.