In 1976, Joni Mitchell was eight years into her recording career. Gradually she’d made the move from Laurel Canyon balladeer to a writer who could create without boundaries. She’d started to incorporate a strong jazz influence into her work – she’d already toured with the jazz fusion band L.A Express (this union can be heard on 1974’s “Miles of Aisles” LP) and her 1975 album “The Hissing of Summer Lawns” threw experimental and world music into the mix. For her next album, Joni had to make something really special to top that. Incredibly, she did.
“Hejira” is about journeys, both actual and metaphorical. The word “hejira” comes from an Arabic word referring to the journey of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. The album was written on road trips and was inspired by what she called “the sweet loneliness of solitary travel”. Mitchell was always moving – always searching for something intangible and indefinable.
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Released in late 1976, “Hejira” took a lot of people by surprise. Mitchell had been moving away from the folk-pop style of her early work for some years, but this album was a world away from “Big Yellow Taxi”. To ring the changes, she brought in a stellar cast of musicians, most notably, virtuoso bassist Jaco Pastorius whose unique, lyrical playing, takes many of the songs to another level. Mitchell uses small ensembles to great effect – there are seldom more than four musicians playing on these songs and drums are used on less than half of the album. Mitchell keeps the beat with her percussive rhythm guitar and with congas filling the gaps. These are not sparse songs, however – they’re all crammed with details, but the musicians are skilled enough to stay out of each other’s way.
The songs are peerless. No longer shackled to the folk tradition, Mitchell’s vocal melodies change and unravel almost at will, just hanging on the barest amount of repetition. She has much to say and each song is crammed with words, bursting over the music like fireworks. Every couplet is carefully considered. Every line is quotable. “Amelia” – the story of a pioneering American aviator who took off on a July night in 1937 and never landed, neatly combines the themes of the album – journeys, loss and self-worth. “Dreams” writes Mitchell, “Dreams and false alarms”. That story must have resonated within her while she stood at a crossroads in her career, shaking off a cocaine addiction and at the end of a volatile relationship with a man she still had to see every day as he was playing drums on this very album – on songs that alluded to their parting and possibly, even her infidelity.
Five of the songs on “Hejira” start with “I” or “I’ve”. Five out of nine. All the songs are first person narratives. Why should we care what she’s thinks about herself? Are we paying good money just to hear her confession? Mitchell is singing for her peers – for all the thirty-somethings that had grown up with her music. This is most evident in “Song for Sharon” – at over eight minutes long, it’s the centrepiece of the album. Essentially, it’s a letter written to a friend with a “normal” life – kids, husband, family. Mitchell stares at this lifestyle with a combination of jealousy, awe and disbelief. The same emotions that most people feel when they think of artists in her position. The song has no chorus and is 81 lines long. It’s also absolutely beautiful.
Mitchell coaxed incredible performances out of the musicians on this record. Pastorius especially – his playing is both free flowing and restrained. On some projects, he’d blast all over what the other performers are doing, but on “Hejira”, he’s always listening. Embellishing. He defines the rhythm and goes beyond it, but never at the expense of the song. Guitarist Larry Carlton plays what is needed and nothing more. No ego-driven flash or trying to compete with Jaco – he just provides elegant and tasteful guitar flourishes which say more about his prowess as a musician than vulgar displays of showy technique ever would.
The album finishes with “Refuge of the Roads”. Whenever Mitchell stays in one place it seems, she becomes uncomfortable. Bad habits, bad thoughts and bad relationships rise up all around her, leaving her no alternative but to travel to anywhere, with anyone, to do anything. The minute she stops, she’ll start to think about what is missing from her RockStar life – the children, the security, the loving, faithful partner – and that is too much for her to bear. While she travels the endless road to anywhere, she thinks comfortable, creative thoughts and the experience of movement gives her the peace of mind to manifest her emotions into something timeless and beautiful. And fortunately for us, that manifestation was “Hejira”.