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Hejira is a 1976 album by the Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. Having had my fingers burned with Mingus I approached this somewhat pretentiously titled album (Hejira is an Arabic word which means journey) with some trepidation but I think it might possibly be my favourite Joni Mitchell collection yet. This is Joni Mitchell on the road doing a bit of a Jack Kerouac. The songs were written during a period of solitary travel she undertook and the storytelling and imagery is of endless lonely roads, small motels, ice storms, beaches, puffy clouds in the sky. The bittersweet nature of solitary travel is perfectly captured and Joni Mitchell's singing has never been more elegant or assured. What I like about this album is that the music is more restrained and gentle in the vein of the early albums so that Joni Mitchell's voice is always the focal point of the record. The music itself is very other worldly and dreamy and makes a perfect backdrop for the singer's meditations. There are only nine songs here but because some of them run to over eight minutes you never feel as if you are being shortchanged when it comes to the running time and the strike rate is as good as any Joni Mitchell album I have listened to. There are no songs here that are unduly hard work or have you lunging for the skip button. Coyote is probably the most upbeat song on the album and a decent way to start Hejira. Joni Mitchell's vocal is rambling but in a deliberate and remarkably skillful way. Her vocal dexterity is highly impressive as she whispers, mutters asides and sings with some of the folksy inflections that marked her early records. The music is relatively simple (by that I mean restrained and not too busy or overbearing) with the bass driving the song. Coyote captures that strange exciting/alienating aura of being alone in new places and is very good. The lyrics on this album are fun too I think. Joni Mitchell was clearly inspired by her sojourn. "No regrets Coyote, We just come from such different sets of circumstance, I'm up all night in the studios, And you're up early on your ranch, You'll be brushing out a brood mare's tail, While the sun is ascending, And I'll just be getting home with my reel to reel, There's no comprehending, Just how close to the bone & the skin & the eyes, And the lips you can get, And still feel so alone." There isn't a bad song on Hejira and Coyote is a pleasant indication of what is to follow.
Amelia seems to be about the famous ill-fated aviator Amelia Earhart. Joni Mitchell gazing to the heavens and seeing jet trails and letting her imagination wander from there, trying to make a connection to Earheart. "I was driving across the burning desert, When I spotted six jet planes, Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain, It was the hexagram of the heavens, It was the strings of my guitar, Amelia it was just a false alarm." This is a long (about six minutes) and pretty song and I really like the guitar here too. It's very spare and makes a wonderful backdrop for Joni Mitchell's wonderful vocal. Her lyrics are at their most poetic and despite its length the song lulls you in and is full of small intricate surprises. Something akin to wind chimes intersperses the guitar and the effect is very nice. Furry Sings the Blues is a likeable song about an old man who sings the blues for anyone who cares to buy him a drink. It was about a musician named Furry Lewis (who I've never heard of) and apparently he got the hump when Joni Mitchell wrote this song about him after they had met. The storytelling and imagery is again of a very high standard and the harmonica (by Neil Young) is great here and really adds a lot to the song. I think Joni Mitchell must have hit some sort of peak around this time with her singing. Love the way she laughs and sings at the same time for a second here. The lyrics here are less esoteric than on the other songs but quite poignant at times. "Old Furry sings the blues, You bring him smoke and drink and he'll play for you, It's mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel, But there was one song he played, I could really feel."
A Strange Boy has some skillful guitar work and is quite knotty and features a vocal tour de force from Joni Mitchell. It sounds like a Nick Drake song but one with more range and ambition. This maybe takes a while to grow on you but is very good. "A strange boy is weaving, A course of grace and havoc, On a yellow skateboard, Thru midday sidewalk traffic, Just when I think he's foolish and childish, And I want him to be manly, I catch my fool and my child, Needing love and understanding." The title song Hejira is a wonderfully melancholy and enchanting song that begins with a haunting guitar strum before Joni Mitchell performs a typically charming and personal vocal. She always makes each song sound as if it is the most important thing she has ever sung and even if the lyrics are impenetrable or sound as if they don't mean anything they clearly always do to her. Perhaps at nearly seven minutes this song goes on for a trifle too long but it's a languid epic and like the vocal equivalent of a sunset across a distant horizon. The music flirts with cheese but one thing that endeared me to it was that it reminded me of the work of Eric Serra in the films of Luc Beeson. That Big Blue sound. The lyrics are nice I think. "There's comfort in melancholy, When there's no need to explain, It's just as natural as the weather, In this moody sky today, In our possessive coupling, So much could not be expressed So now I'm returning to myself, These things that you and I suppressed." Song for Sharon is over eight minutes long and the widescreen epic on the the album. It has spiraling guitars and Joni Mitchell as her own backing chorus. It's very impressive but maybe does become a little samey in the end (perhaps because of the length of the song as much as anything). This reminded me a little bit of that French group Air Safari (sic?) with its floaty ambient acoustics and aura. Song for Sharon is very good but I felt like this could have been shortened. Good lyrics again. "I went to Staten Island, To buy myself a mandolin And I saw the long white dress of love, On a storefront mannequin..."
Black Crow is the shortest song here at just over four minutes and perhaps feels like the weakest and most throwaway but it is still pretty and pleasant enough. Joni Mitchell imagines herself as a black crow soaring up towards the clouds. "I feel like that black crow flying in a blue sky!" Reminds me of that woman in SPACE 1999 who could turn into animals! Blue Motel Room is the jazziest song on the album but in a good way. This is very dreamy and languid with falsetto vocals and a distorted effect with Joni Mitchell's voice which is very atmospheric. Fluffier than a million pillows on a gigantic plate of jelly. "I've got a blue motel room, With a blue bedspread, I've got the blues inside and outside my head..." Refuge of the Roads has a fairly self-explanatory title and another superb vocal from Joni Mitchell - here trying to find herself as she experiences rest rooms and beaches as she travels the lonely road. The horns here are again very Eric Serra (I wonder if he was a fan?) and there are a vague hint of strings too. I love the way Joni Mitchell sings here. It's almost perfect. A fantastic song. The entire theme of the album is perfectly distilled and expressed in this sweet coda to Hejira. "There was spring along the ditches, There were good times in the cities, Oh, radiant happiness, It was all so light and easy, Till I started analyzing, And I brought on my old ways, A thunderhead of judgment was, Gathering in my gaze, And it made most people nervous, They just didn't want to know, What I was seeing in the refuge of the roads." Hejira is a languid widescreen epic. A deserted beach as the sun goes down. Not knowing a great deal about it and given that that it was a mid/late seventies album I wasn't expecting too much but now it might possibly be my favourite Joni Mitchell album of all.