Recently there were a lot of stories celebrating Joni Mitchell’s album Blue. And quite rightly. It turned 50 the other week and for a couple of generations it has been one of the defining singer/songwriter albums. And perhaps, alongside Carole King’s Tapestry, which also just turned 50, it is responsible for creating the role: Female Singer/Songwriter. That was the marketer’s tagline for a while there anyway – female singer/songwriter. An implied silver medal in that title. Which is awful. And a reminder that men run the music industry, which is why it has been run into the ground.
There are plenty of people who have taken influence from Mitchell – male and female, non-binary, gender-fluid, gender-less– but as my wife Katy put it: “no one will ever sound quite like Joni”.
In all my years of listening to Joni Mitchell, I had never really articulated the stand-alone world the music occupies. I think Katy summed it up well.
It certainly helps to have a decent writer in our house.
Blue was one of the first albums I heard by Joni, part of the introduction along with a couple of crucial compilations– and it’s so good, so big, so monumental that it can get lost in the flow. Or it can feel like it dwarfs the rest of the work. But the album I always feel like celebrating, and the album I always feel like listening to when it comes to Joni Mitchell’s work – is a little one called Hejira. I can’t even remember when I first heard it – just somewhere there in the line-up. But it is now, without question, my favourite.
It arrived in the mid-70s and is the middle of a trilogy of exploratory “jazz” albums.
Whenever I listen to it the music just washes over me. Envelops me. That languid, loping roll of Jaco Pastorius’ bass, the funky folk-scratch of Joni’s guitar; Larry Carlton peeking in over the lines from time to time.
Joni sings and Jaco’s bass rubs its muzzle against the song. It probes and pulses and acts as a pulley. It dominates – but it never takes over (if that makes sense). It is some of the most musical bass playing you’ll ever hear. It is a star-turn, absolutely – but Hejira is so big as an album, so wide, so sprawling and perfect in its languid crawl, that Jaco’s bass work is just one star-turn. There are many components that make this album the journey that it is.
That’s an important word, journey; the album’s title is a transliteration of the word Hijra – which means exactly that. Journey.
The songs were written as Mitchell put whatever cares she had at the time in perspective and – in almost all senses – behind her. She journeyed across America, composing the album from her thoughts and stories as she went. Taking the songs to the band after, assembling an incredible crew of empathetic musicians.
The songs could seem impenetrable at first – Coyote opens with the line “No regrets, Coyote/We just come from such different sets of circumstance”. It might not do it for you, but every time I hear the song’s opening – I’m hooked. I know how it is going to play out, I now know the story, but I’m sold every time. There’s just the acoustic and electric guitar and Jaco’s fretless bass dancing in and out around the lines. And there’s so much space – space that echoes and reflects the landscape on the journey; it actually makes the song feel like it was written out of a car window, the lines jotted down between lamppost flickers.
That line about coming from “such different sets of circumstance” is the key to this song, to the story of a one-night stand that has a few zingers (“Why’d you have to get so drunk/And lead me on that way”) but no regrets.
The philosophy is explained in the lines that end each verse, “You just picked up a hitcher/A prisoner of the white lines of the freeway”. As with so many of Mitchell’s songs from the 1970s this could be a story from her own life – and it’s likely that it is. But it (also) works as fiction – so it’s irrelevant whether it’s actually about the time the playwright and actor Sam Shepard and Mitchell hooked up. It’s about a hooking up – and a subsequent moving on.
The whole album is about moving on – or a series of moving ons/movings on.
For Amelia there’s the blending of a meditation on the life of aviator Amelia Earhart (who disappeared during a flight) with that of Mitchell’s journey, her desert drive; her Hejira/Hijra – Mitchell was doing her own version of getting lost, possibly getting lost in the song and calling out to another lost pilot, (creating a) kindred soul.
For all the themes of travel and journey – there is a huge sense of loss in the album, something conveyed through the instrumental space, through the songs that sometimes feel mournful but never seem grim. There’s a warmth to the loss, it’s never cold, detached. It’s the loss of (part of an) identity, sometimes it’s for the better, it’s certainly (always) part of the journey.
Sometimes the loss comes from looking at someone else – as with Furry Sings The Blues. This song sees Jaco’s bass tag out, sending Neil Young’s harmonica into the ring. Young’s parps and toots are not the over-obvious wheeze and rasp of a folk harmonica, they’re slides and trace-around sounds. His harmonica could be a slide guitar; it could be a percussion instrument. It could be (and is) another voice, an echo to the main voice (at least).
Furry Sings The Blues was stolen from conversations with Furry Lewis, the blues singer/guitarist. Mitchell met with him and framed his nostalgia in the song. (Lewis was, apparently, not happy). It could be seen as a precursor for Mitchell’s Mingus album/project where she wrote songs with and about the legendary jazz bassist, releasing the finished album as a form of eulogy.
Another of the moods/themes that comes through – again and again – when listening to Hejira is that of night, nocturnal stirrings; again the idea of the flickering lampposts beating their path against and through the shadows as a car drives on. You get that with A Strange Boy.
The title track is mournful and Jaco Pastorius seemingly issues moans from his bass against Mitchell’s guitar as she takes the journey inward, suggesting, firstly, that “there’s comfort in melancholy” and then pointing out that “I see something of myself in everyone/just in this moment of the world”. It arrives midway through the journey of the album – and again there are references to travel, externally, but it is about the internal, intrinsic journey, a human journey.
Song For Sharon was never one of my favourites in my early discover of the Hejira album but in the last year or so it’s really grown on me, the loop of bass and light drums as Mitchell sings a long travelogue. But importantly it’s in the switch from that song to Black Crow – the tempo shift, the tension build.
Hejira is rounded off by Blue Motel Room and Refuge Of The Roads, both of which hint back to The Hissing Of Summer Lawns; Refugee Of The Roads also feels, instrumentally, like the perfect bookend with Coyote.
The album feels complete – the journey is wide open, there to take many times. A perfect album – closure in some sense, wide open though – ready for your return.
I listen to Joni Mitchell albums a lot – I always say my favourite is the one I’m listening to right now. Whatever that is. But that’s not true. My favourite used to be The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, or Blue, or Court & Spark, or For The Roses or Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. But now it is Hejira. I love all of those other albums – and others from Joni too.
But Hejira has spoken to me the most over the last few years. It’s been the constant. It’s not up for anniversary reappraisal – no big birthday coming (it will be 45 later this year, I will be 45 very soon – maybe that’s part of why it’s on my mind right now?)
Joni Mitchell’s lyrics contain multitudes. Her melodies undulate. The rhythms keep you guessing, catch you unaware, surprise and excite you. And the music – so personal to her – becomes so personal to you.
Sometimes I listen to Hejira and feel like I’m beaming. Other times I am sure I could weep. I can get that feeling sometimes, in the same song – be it the title track, Song For Sharon, Coyote or Amelia.
The albums either side of Hejira are special too; like volumes of an autobiography, or novels in a series. I like to listen to them in order. I like to take one of them and make that the focus of a day, playing it several times. But if I had to recommend just one Joni Mitchell album to listen to deeply it is always going to be Hejira.
But if you’re looking for something beyond Joni, beyond Hejira – if you want another musical journey altogether, I got your back, as usual. This week we’re up to Vol. 19 of A Little Something For The Weekend – Sounds Good! I hope you enjoy this one…
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