Great Albums of the 20th Century: Joni Mitchell’s Hejira (1976)

Joni Mitchell - Hejira coverIn this occasional series, I’m going to celebrate some of the previous century’s greatest albums, presented in no particular order and with no discernible frequency. The only requirement: every track has to be great. This is a personal list, ultimately, but one I hope proves persuasive at times or, at the very least, piques your curiosity about an album you might’ve overlooked.

On a relaxing stretch of highway during a daylong solo drive in June, I began playing Joni Mitchell’s Hejira and my journey was abruptly transformed by this music from forty years ago…how good it was: its sound, its thoughtfulness, its power to be so immediate and wise-weary. The album’s title, based on the Arabic word for journey, is its theme  (reinforced by a stunning cover double-exposure), particularly how a solitary traveler’s senses, freed from the distractions of conversation, are sharpened when confronted by the new. Here’s the lyrical riff that ends the album, all triggered by glimpsing a calendar in a gas station:

In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all
You couldn’t see these coldwater restrooms
Or this baggage overload
Westbound and rolling
Taking refuge in the roads

—“Refuge Of The Roads” ©1976 Crazy Crow Music (BMI)

I’m awestruck by the narrative zoom in these lines…out to the moon and back (humanity’s ultimate journey, so far)…and how effortlessly she shakes up perspective and her place in the scheme of things. Indeed, the poetry in her lyrics is perhaps the album’s most compelling feature, certainly for the writer in me.

She avoids the cliché of “from the cradle to the grave” by her more succinct and inventive phrase “between the forceps and the stone” (“Hejira”), which is a master class in sensory suggestion (you can’t help but feel both the cold steel of the obstetrician’s forceps and the stony surface of the “granite markers,” a phrase she uses in the next stanza—these references serving as tactile bookends bracketing a life).

With astonishing economy, she reduces a lover to his essence with this clear-eyed observation:

He picks up my scent on his fingers
While watching the waitresses’ legs
—“Coyote” ©1976 Crazy Crow Music (BMI)

Other ways Mitchell creatively translated the mundane:

  • “I’ve spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes/And looking down on everything” (“Amelia”)
  • “In the church they light the candles/And the wax rolls down like tears” (“Hejira”)
  • “While the boarders were snoring/Under crisp white sheets of curfew/We were newly lovers then/We were fire in the stiff-blue-haired-house-rules” (“Strange Boy”)
  • “As snow gathers like bolts of lace/Waltzing on a ballroom girl” (“Hejira”)
  • “I looked at the morning/After being up all night/I looked at my haggard face in the bathroom light/I looked out the window/And I saw that ragged soul take flight/I saw a black crow flying/In a blue sky” (“Black Crow”)

Supporting these lines: Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius, guitarist Larry Carlton (The Crusaders), Tom Scott, Neil Young, Bobbye Hall, John Guerin, and Mitchell herself on guitar and vocals. Pastorius, in particular, with his signature freeform fretless bass, adds a resonant and inventive texture, their first collaboration, added as overdubs after all the tracks were recorded. Carlton’s flawless lead guitar, especially in songs like “Black Crow” and “Strange Boy,” adds energy, urgency, or languor, as needed, every note impeccable. And Mitchell’s voice, which in earlier albums could sometimes veer into the peculiar, is here pitched perfectly, full of nuance and emotion, one of her strongest performances on record.

I bought this album when it first came out, as I did with most of her albums in the 1970s and 80s. In my twenties, I was fascinated by Mitchell’s candor and saw her confessions as a way to better understand a woman’s point of view, something I surely needed. I also noticed how devoted to her were many of the girls I’d known in college, well beyond the boundaries of an ordinary fan. Clearly she was articulating something important, lessons I needed to learn…about love, living, and loneliness. She could be melancholy at times—in “River” (on Blue), she even managed to make melodic lines from “Jingle Bells” as mournful as a funeral dirge. By the time she’d released Hejira, her eighth album, I had come to rely on her as an essential element of my education.

For me, Hejira is like choosing an alternate route on a long trip that won’t necessarily get you there the fastest but is so pleasing during the time it unfolds you can’t resist going that way again and again.

 

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