Review Summary: "I'm traveling in some vehicle / I'm sitting in some cafe / A defector from the petty wars / Until love sucks me back that way"
If medals were awarded for career suicides, Joni Mitchell surely would have drowned in gold with the release of the ruthlessly challenging, out-jazz Mingus in 1980. Only Mitchell's most zealous devotees found any semblance of sanity within the record, and music critics were left coping with imaginary betrayals. But the radical shift from darling singer-songwriter to aspiring experimentalist shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone. While the seeds were planted on Mitchell's Hissing of Summer Lawns, the signs flashed in bright neon when Weather Report veteran Jaco Pastorius jumped on board for Mitchell's eighth studio album, Hejira. It was Hejira that marked the precipice for Mitchell's headfirst dive into abstract jazz obscurity in the following years. Containing neither the easily-hummed radio hits of Court and Spark, nor the sparse, bizarre arrangements of Mingus, Joni changed her approach just enough to craft the perfect synthesis of elusion and seduction.
Seconds after album opener and lead single “Coyote” kicks in it's immediately apparent that Mitchell is annexing new musical territory. While unquestionably infectious and effective as a single, “Coyote” distinguishes itself from Mitchell's prior recordings. Jaco's thick, propulsive rhythms dance effortlessly alongside Mitchell's colorful acoustic strumming. It's not folk, and it's not jazz; it's the melding of two very different artists' genetics into an exciting hybrid of musical cultures. And it's also the most familiar song on the record.
Mitchell's adventurous attitude translates throughout the rest of the album, much of which deviates even further from the sound she established on Blue and Court and Spark. Instead of relying on the hooks that immortalized songs such as “Help Me” or the straightforward folk instrumentation that made Ladies of the Canyon so charming, Mitchell, alongside her newly assembled session ensemble of jazz and folk musicians, establishes a mysterious, lounging malaise of jazz rhythms, stark acoustics, and gorgeous vocals that permeates the record. Much like an intoxicating miasma, every left-turn thrown at the listener only serves as another point of intrigue.
Album centerpiece and title track “Hejira” serves as a perfect example, weaving through a subdued, brooding sprawl of thick, surging bass lines and melancholic guitar chords. The track finds Mitchell far more atmospheric and introspective than she's ever been, stretching herself as a songwriter and her audience as listeners. Elsewhere, “Black Crow” finds Mitchell melding the forward momentum of “Coyote”'s quick-strummed acoustics with the restlessness of the album's more self-illuminating cuts. Hejira not only refuses to play by the conventions Mitchell worked so hard to establish through her career, but also refuses to retread over the ground its paving, finding new methods of expression at every turn.
But for all of Mitchell's musical gains, it's her poetry that keeps her anchored to her previous recordings. The pure poetry of lines such as “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” finds Mitchell at her lyrical peak, emotionally resonant and strikingly beautiful.
Strikingly beautiful is actually the perfect tagline for Hejira. It's a record that, despite its abstractions, manages to enchant the listener with the promise of rich reward for traveling down its twisting, foggy roads. You can see it in the album’s cover art, in which a swell of clouds loom forebodingly over a stretch of solitary asphalt; though it stretches on, there’s an end where the lines of land and sky meet together. And that’s Hejira – it’s the journey framed within Mitchell on the cover, and it’s the journey for the listener, invited inside that black, enveloping shawl. Whatever artistic missteps Mitchell made in the following years and decades, and there were several, no doubt, it's difficult to harbor any lingering frustrations when an album as vital and honest as Hejira is always available, begging you to take the plunge.