A review of “Hejira” by Joni Mitchell

There are three Joni Mitchell albums which most people, including me, consider her masterpieces. In chronological order, which is the same as the order of how well-known they are, they are “Blue”, “Court and Spark” and “Hejira”. There’s no point trying to judge which of these three is the best, since they all have their own distinctive qualities. As Joni Mitchell’s career progressed, the main influence on her sound gradually changed from folk to jazz (I’m characterising this change very crudely here, but it’s one way of describing it). “Hejira” hits a sweet spot on this progression where these two influences interact to create something wonderful. I always find it very difficult to describe sounds in words, so instead I’ll just show you a video. Listen to the opening track, “Coyote”, for just a few seconds and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

I didn’t fall immediately in love with this sound when I first listened to “Hejira”, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that there was something extremely attractive about it. It’s not the kind of sound that immediately grabs your attention—it’s more slow than fast, more relaxing than exciting, more content than emotionally charged either way. But it does have a kind of entrancing quality about it which is more than enough to keep you interested. I find “Hejira” makes excellent background music—although, of course, that’s not all it’s good for—because it doesn’t demand your attention, and you don’t have to devote much attention to the music to enjoy it, since the mere sound of it is so pleasant to hear.

Apparently, the dominating instrument on this album, along with Joni Mitchell’s guitar, is a bass guitar played by jazz musician Jaco Pastorius, which makes a significant contribution to the sound of this album. I don’t even know how to distinguish the bass guitar from the regular one, so I can’t really say much more about this. I can say something about Joni Mitchell’s voice, however. In accordance with the general atmosphere, her voice is somewhat restrained in its range. She doesn’t raise her voice to the absurdly high pitches she often raised it to on “Blue” and earlier albums. But this doesn’t make her voice dull; she makes up for the loss in range by putting much more power into her voice, and I actually think her voice sounds better on this album than on any previous one. It’s the voice of a mature woman, not the voice of a girl as it was on the albums up to “Blue”.

Finally, I should mention that the songs on this album, as well as all sounding similar, all touch on a similar theme, as most of them were inspired by Joni Mitchell’s experience of travelling for a long period, alone, across the United States. In fact, the title of the album comes from the Arabic word referring to Muhammad’s journey out of Mecca to Medina. While songs like “Hejira” and “Refuge of the Roads” deal with this theme explicitly, there are constant references to it scattered throughout the rest of the songs, such as in “Coyote”, where Joni refers to herself as “a hitcher, a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway”, or in “Amelia”, where Joni is “driving across the burning desert”.

As you might gather from these lines, the lyrics on this album are just as brilliantly attractive as the music which accompanies them. “Amelia”, “Hejira” and “Song for Sharon” are the most outstanding songs in this regard; in particular, “Amelia” seems to be many people’s favourite. I’ll admit that it took me a long time to get into “Amelia”—the songs which attracted me when I first listened to this album were the other two—but just recently, I’ve realised that there really is something especially beautiful about this song. I’m going to break from my usual practice of going through the songs on order on this album, and talk about “Amelia” first. Like any great song, everything seems to come together perfectly on “Amelia”. Its lyrics are reminiscent of a Bob Dylan song: they are somewhat ambiguous, and you listen to it without having any real idea what the song is about. The “Amelia” of the title is Amelia Earhart: the “ghost of aviation” who was “swallowed by the sky”. She is addressed throughout the song, and repeatedly told, as a refrain, “Amelia, it was just a false alarm”. Exactly what was a false alarm is not made clear. It’s up to the listener to interpret it, or just to appreciate the beautiful lyrics without feeling the need to understand exactly what they refer to. As for the music on this song, it’s one of the best-sounding songs here. While the lyrics are rather melancholy, containing words like “bleak”, “drone”, “hurt”, “cursed”, “foolish”, “strange”, I think the music tempers this tone a little; the various high-pitched noises in the background add a touch of hope to the whole thing.

“Amelia” may be the best song on the album, but it’s somewhat too weird to be the opening track. Instead, the album begins with “Coyote”, which is a little more ‘fun’. I’m not complaining about this—”Coyote” is a great song too, although it’s not in the same league as “Amelia”. The melancholy element is still there, and there’s a constant reminder of it in that memorable refrain of “a hitcher, a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway”. But there are some funny lines here. Well, there’s at least one funny set of lines. The “Coyote” of a title is a womaniser who Joni has become acquainted with: she remarks, “he’s got a woman at home / he’s got another woman down the hall / he seems to want me anyway”, changing her tone of voice in that last line as if to say “seriously?”. She doesn’t reject his advances, though; in fact, the song is a kind of reflection on how she sees him as a kind of fellow traveler.

The third song, “Furry Sings the Blues”, has an interesting story behind it. At one point in 1976, as she was travelling through Memphis, Joni paid a visit to the home of Furry Lewis in Beale Street. During the 1920s, Beale Street had been the centre of a flourishing blues scene in Memphis and Furry Lewis had been one of its stars. Of course, he didn’t have the kind of lifestyle later musicians like Joni Mitchell enjoyed—he still had to work as a sweet sweeper to make a living. This became his only means of living after the Great Depression, when there was no more hope of him making any recording deals. By the 1960s, Beale Street was a ghost of its former self; the old clubs and bars where the blues used to be played had been closed down. But Furry still lived in the same old apartment and still worked at the same old sweeping job. There was a revival of interest in the blues by this time—after all, it was one of the precursors of rock— and Lewis became a minor celebrity due to the fact that he was the last of the 1920s bluesmen who would still play music. So that was the context of the visit, and maybe you can see why Furry Lewis might have been a little bit bitter, especially in the presence of Joni Mitchell, who was by this time enjoying a level of success Lewis had never known. He couldn’t complain just about her visiting him, but he wasn’t particularly pleased to hear that she’d made a song about the experience. As he told Rolling Stone:

“The way I feel” says Furry “is that your name is proper only to you, and when you use it you should get results from it. She shouldn’t have used my name in no way, shape, form or faction without consultin’ me ’bout it first. The woman came over here and I treated her right, just like I does everybody that comes over. She wanted to hear ’bout the old days, said it was for her own personal self, and I told it to her like it was, gave her straight oil from the can.” He stares at the surrealistic photo on the Hejira cover. “But then she goes and puts it all down on a record, using my name and not giving me nothing! I can’t stop nobody from talkie’ ’bout Beale Street, ’cause the street belongs to everybody. But when she says ‘Furry,’ well that belongs to me!”

It can’t have helped that “Furry Sings the Blues” is a brutally honest song, to the point of rudeness. In terms of his appearance, she describes him as “propped up in his bed with his dentures and his leg removed”; in terms of his performance, she remarks that “it’s mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel” (although “there was one song he played that I could really feel”). Of course, these remarks come from a place of sympathy, and she does display some self-awareness in the last lines of the song: “why should I expect that old guy to give it to me true … while our limo is shining on his shanty street”. As far as I know, Joni has never said anything about Lewis’ reaction to the song, but I imagine her feelings on it would be that the song is an expression of the truth, and she wasn’t going to tamper with the truth to protect Furry Lewis’s ego. Nevertheless, if I was her, maybe I would have released the song after Lewis had died.

You may be interested in all this background, or not, in which case you’re probably thinking “yes, very interesting, but what does it sound like?” Well, my opinion is that “Furry Sings the Blues” is one of the less remarkable songs on the album, musically. It still has that lovely “Hejira” sound, but it doesn’t stand out among the rest. And you can imagine what Furry Lewis’s opinion of the song was: he hated it.

The next song, “A Strange Boy”, is also one of the more unremarkable songs on this album. In fact, it sounds very similar to “Furry Sings the Blues”. I do find it somewhat more interesting, mainly because I love the way Joni sings this song; at some points her voice goes really deep, and at some points her voice goes really high, and either way, it’s pretty sweet.

After these two more average songs, there is a very impressive string of three highlights: “Hejira”, “Song for Sharon” and “Black Crow”. I find it hard to pick a favourite on this album, but if I did pick one, it’d be one of these three, or “Amelia”. The first of these is a fitting title song, since it epitomises the whole album both in terms of its theme and its sound. That entrancing, mysterious “Hejira” sound is turned up to eleven on this song. The melody is also excellent and it fits the theme very well; it seems to wander, if that makes any sense, just as Joni herself is wandering on her travels. Although it’s a long song (nearly 7 minutes), with little variation from verse to verse, it’s rare that I don’t want to listen to it all the way through. In fact, this was the very first song I fell in love with from “Hejira”, after I saw this amazing live performance, in which she puts a little more power into the words than she does on the album version.

“Song For Sharon” is another long song: in fact, at 8 minutes, 38 seconds, it’s the longest song Joni had released (“Hejira” and “Refuge of the Roads” were also longer than every song she had released except “Harry’s House-Centerpiece” from “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”, which was only a few seconds longer). Like “Hejira”, it’s long simply because it has a lot of verses; the same melody is repeated throughout. That sounds like a recipe for boredom, but just as with “Hejira”, I very rarely get bored listening to this. Within each verse, the lines gradually build up in power, before reaching a climax with the last line which is seriously impressive, so you end up looking forward to the end of the next verse when you’ll get to hear something similar again. The last lines of the first and sixth verses are especially awesome because, unlike the other verses, they have an additional unstressed syllable after the final stressed syllable, and Joni sings this last syllable at a higher pitch and holds it for a little while. I think it sounds really cool: “SOME girl’s gonna see that dress and CRAVE that day like cra-zyyyyyy”.

In terms of the lyrics this is one of the most interesting songs on the album. It’s a monologue addressed to a childhood friend, the “Sharon” of the title, essentially on what Joni is doing with her life and where she is trying to go, inspired by her observation that while Sharon now has “a husband and a family and a farm”, all Joni has to show for her glamorous rock-and-roll lifestyle is “the apple of temptation and a diamond snake around my arm”. I suppose it can be seen as a song about loneliness—Joni wants to “FIND another lov-errrrrrr”—but there aren’t any conclusions made her, and it’s not really clear what she wants.

Now, the mood of “Hejira” is, overall, pretty calm (although it’s not exactly a cheerful or hopeful song), while “Song For Sharon” is a bit more ill-at-ease, but on “Black Crow”, the mood becomes positively despairing. You can see this from the very start of the song where she begins singing by wailing the first word at a really high pitch, higher than any pitch you’ve heard her singing at so far on this album. She only reaches that note again briefly in the last line of this song, but the singing throughout is similar in its emotional tone. The weariness and frustration in Joni’s voice when she sings “I’ve been travelling SO long” is especially striking. In line with its general sentiment, this song is faster and more eerie-sounding than the others on this album. It’s only about 4 minutes long, which makes it one of the shortest songs here (along with “A Strange Boy”). Despite its general sentiment, it’s still a beautiful piece of music—it’s not unpleasant to the ears.

The mood changes somewhat in “Blue Motel Room”: this song is, actually, basically comic relief. While the other two love songs on this album (“Coyote” and “A Strange Boy”) are more introspective and about Joni herself rather than her lovers, this one is of a more straightforward kind. It’s just a simple seductive song, which isn’t to be taken very seriously. It has some hilarious lines—well, at least one hilarious line, which I’ll leave for you to discover. Joni’s singing here is very impressive: clearly she hadn’t lost the really high-pitched, feminine singing voice she had on her early albums, but she had learned to only use it when it was really appropriate.

Finally, we have “Refuge of the Roads”. This is the most difficult song on the album for me to write about, because it’s never really stood out to me when I listen to the album, so I don’t feel like I have given this song a proper listen. In my experience, it often takes repeated listens to start being able to appreciate the music of a song and not just see it as an unfamiliar sequence of sounds. Once you can appreciate a song properly you often end up liking it better than songs which are immediately appealing. Still, it can’t be denied that for me, at least, “Refuge of the Roads” is more difficult to appreciate than the rest of the songs on the album. It’s another lengthy personal song along the lines of “Hejira” or “Song For Sharon”. This melody of this song is one of the more upbeat ones on the album; the lyrics aren’t exactly overtly upbeat, but they are more confident: there’s no trace of regret for taking refuge in the roads. So it’s a good ntoe to end the album on; the song is hardly unwelcome in the context of the album, even though I may not be much of a fan of it in isolation. After all, “Hejira” is an album from the 1970s, when albums were made with the expectation that people would listen to all the songs in sequence, so they had to function as cohesive units.

To summarise: this is an excellent album, one of Joni Mitchell’s best, and certainly better than any of the albums which came after this one1. It does have a consistent mood and sound which tends towards melancholy and introversion, so you may prefer “Court and Spark” (if you want to hear something more cheerful) or “Blue” (if you fancy a more extroverted kind of melancholy).

Footnote

  1. ^ I can’t really state this for sure since I haven’t listened to much of Joni’s output after the 70s. Based on what I’ve heard, though, it doesn’t seem likely that it will turn out otherwise.
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