September 17, 2008
Record Review: Hejira
1976 | Asylum
Over the forty-odd years of her career, Joni Mitchell’s unapologetically glorious talent has inspired both fellow folksingers and jazz musicians alike, including Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Brian Blade, Charles Mingus, and Herbie Hancock. Hejira, one of her most lush and painterly albums, explains why.
Mitchell delicately blends, as is her trademark, wistful vignettes from her life with inventive compositions. Each song, the product of such reminiscence and adventurousness, is like a seed – equally a memento and a promise. Her lyrics particularly investigate a decidedly feminist theme: her predilections for traveling and independence, and their corresponding divergence from traditional roles for women. In “Song For Sharon,” she sings “Sharon you’ve got a husband and a family and a farm.” Mitchell, instead, has “the apple of temptation…” While Sharon sings for her “friends and her family,” Mitchell keeps her eyes “on the land and the sky” and will continue journeying. Close ones also urge her to “have children,” and find a charity to “help the needy,” but all she wants “right now is find another lover.” In the track “Amelia,” the strings of Mitchell’s guitar are the “hexagram of the heavens,” the same unwieldy heavens through which Amelia Earhart bravely flies. Even though people will direct Amelia (and Mitchell) where to go, “until” she “gets there,” she’ll “never really know.”
Moreover, Mitchell, widely regarded as a musician’s musician, illustrates with her sublime dexterity as a composer and an instrumentalist how she managed to establish herself all those years ago when such credibility was primarily reserved for men. The structure of the melodies echo her panoramic sensibility. The songs are long. They languor and develop slowly, which nurtures a nuanced accretion akin to genuflection. The bass, played beautifully by Jaco Pastorius, tends to lead in a strong, yet questioning tone, as does Mitchell’s alternatingly crisp and subdued guitar. Both coalesce and dissipate amongst shimmering drums and Mitchell’s voice. By intimating rather than dictating, the melodies invite the listener to collage in conjunction. However, Mitchell always maintains her own distinct sound.
At the current moment, when many Americans seem hell-bent on regressive politics, it is more pleasurable than ever to revel in the giftedness of a woman who reaches so masterfully with the unrehearsed, warm-blooded intelligence of wild creatures; antidote to the anathemic presence of a certain Republican female politician who shoots wild creatures and reiterates robotically as instructed. Consider this album an oasis elucidating the difference between looking back and moving backwards. Or simply consider it sublime on its own merit. But listen to it and choose for yourself, because Joni would not have it any other way.
by Alicia Dreilinger