In the winter months that followed an exhaustive tour in support of her 1975 experimental album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and her romantic split with jazz drummer John Guerin, Joni Mitchell was eager to find some solace in the company of friends and the open road. In her long and winding travels across the Southwest and Maine – dropping off and visiting with close friends along the way – early versions of tracks like “Coyote” and “Hejira“, the title track off her eighth studio album, was just beginning to take form. Hejira, an Arabic-derived saying that roughly translates into “running away from something honorably”, acts as more or less a travelogue composed and brought forth by a supposed “refuge of the road”. Somber, bass-accented chord progressions by the likes of Jaco Pastorius skillfully evokes smoky, smooth jazz sensibilities that is somewhat of an unusual extension of her 1971 Blue album. Images of a yawning highway, the thematic hook for Hejira, represents a casual ambivalence of personal, intimate adventures through the pervasiveness of detours, road-mapped destinations, and circumstances observed from the sidelines of a passing, weather-beaten vehicle.
One of the greatest singer-songwriters to ever come out of that Laurel Canyon folk scene of the early 70s, Joni Mitchell has continued to make the case in interviews throughout her career that, not-so-surprisingly, painting had always been her first artistic language. Much like her landscapes and self-portraits, which are seriously incredible by the way, her records are rich in imagery, atmosphere, and color. There’s a liberating feeling of sisterly guidance and warmth to her singing of verses arranged from that place of classic, long story folk lyricism. A frequent collaborator with the likes of Pat Methany, Jaco Pastorius, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – among others – Mitchell’s musical contributions is a hybrid of differing genres, whether it be folk, world music, pop, or smooth jazz. From Corinne Bailey Rae to Ani Difranco to Diana Krall, the musical influence Joni Mitchell continues to hold in even contemporary times is palpable beyond measure.
The record opens with toxic, provocative recollections of late-night affairs in the ever-infectious “Coyote” – with such an animal symbolizing a form of pure male energy spontaneous in its desire to take full sexual advantage of a lonely, female hitchhiker. Similar in effect to “Amelia”, each of the four verses ends with an unforgettable hook or tag – the single-line being “A prisoner of the white lines on a freeway” – used to sum up the overarching narrative. Such details forecasts the irony of our hero’s struggles in feeling trapped by the wide open spaces and consequential choices of the day-to-day though finding herself amused and unconcerned when faced with the threatening albeit momentary advances of a married man – whom she feels she can rightfully tease and control as she sees fit.
The intro to “Amelia” saunters between notes of melancholy and cool-headed optimism. Thus when Joni comes in on the vocals at the beginning of each verse it’s on a much brighter, major key that’s been built up a couple measures prior – making each of the verses feel as if one was lifting off from a disquieting lull. Shifts in tone between the major and minor keys, much like the rest of the tracks, works to empower the whimsy of the listener – allowing for the music and words to feel unresolved and fluid. Inspired by the aviation pioneer and author, Amelia Earhart, Mitchell draws lyrical parallels between the unsolved ills and perceived mistakes that had sealed Amelia’s fate with that of the artist’s own unrestrained urges to plunge headfirst into the highest atmospheres of her own foolish wanderlust. One of the more revealing verses reads: “A ghost of aviation / She was swallowed by the sky / Or by the sea like me she had a dream to fly / Like Icarus ascending / On beautiful foolish arms / Amelia, it was just a false alarm”.
Light and easy to the ear, Joni Mitchell’s lyrics on Hejira beautifully articulates a hyper-realism of circumstances and perceived freedoms of a rather small and fleeting existence. “Song For Sharon”, for instance, gives voice to the unspoken anxieties of women – especially those of that 70s era – who while feeling burdened by the cultural expectations of settling down also wrestle within themselves conflicting desires to remain in the wild terrain of a self-actualized come-as-you-may, do-as-you-please fantasy. Almost like an out-of-body experience, Joni’s more confessional moments on the record seems to paint the picture of a woman restlessly moving towards and away from the things that threatens to trap her.
It’s hard to lose interest when listening to these songs in spite of the absence of certain conventions – like a chorus or resolution in the lyrics and melody. Instead, compelling tales are unpacked with each mounting verse like that of a free-form, poetic monologue concerning past regrets, clumsy desires of the present, and unsettled hopes one musters for the future. The single feat of such a record is its effortless ability to re-engineer a sound that feels conversational and untidy all the while being deceptively involved and thoughtful.