In her stark new "Hejira" album, Joni Mitchell begins picking up some of the shattered emotional pieces of last year's somewhat experimental (musically) and disillusion-stained (lyrically) "The Hissing of Summer Lawns."
But the return to the more familiar and accessible tone of the folk-flavored singer-songwriter's peak creative period is only partially achieved. While containing traces of Mitchell's much admired imagery and in-sight "Hejira" lacks the consistency and, most importantly, the discovery of her best work.
In the four albums from "Ladies of the Canyon" in 1970 to "Court and Spark" in 1974 Mitchell set a standard of songwriting excellence that—except for Bob Dylan's "Freewheelin'" to "Blonde on Blonde" period—may well be unmatched in the modern folk/rock era.
In those albums, Mitchell, as literate a figure as we have in pop, demonstrated the ability to explore and honestly reveal—rather than soften or glamorize—the joys and disappointment of her experiences, both those dealing with romance and career/self-fulfillment.
While many of the romantic songs touched on the tender, fragile aftermath of relationships that didn't work out there was usually an element of optimism attached to them. Happiness/romance/success may not have existed at the moment, but it was always in reach.
In "Summer Lawns," however, there was less hope. The optimism and idealism of youth had begun to fade. Things were no longer guaranteed. There was even a certain anger directed at the unrealistic, happy-ever-after expectations that are often programmed into the young.
The album suggested the need to move from the early idyllic viewpoint to a more realistic one. Even its jarring somewhat dissonant, jazz-flavored arrangements—a marked change from the caressing, fluid style of her earlier, albums—underscored the sense of upheaval.
Calm and Understatement
In "Hejira," there is a certain calm and understatement (in both the bare melodies and low-pulse guitar/bass musical shading) that represent the first, tentative step in a search for a new balance and perspective. It's quite appropriate, therefore, that the album's title is a reference (from the Arabic) to a significant journey in one's life. The album cover, fittingly, shows a long, deserted stretch of highway running through the heart of this otherwise glamorous, Vogue-ish photo of Mitchell.
In "Amelia" the album's loveliest and most engaging song, Mitchell uses the symbolism of aviator Amelia Earhart's solo flight across the Atlantic to convey the loneliness and uncertainty that can accompany one's own journey in life. The song touches specifically on a romance that again, didn't work out:
"People will tell you where they've gone/They'll tell you where to go/But 'till you get there yourself you never really know/Where some have found their paradise/Others just come to harm/Amelia, it was just a false alarm."
In the album's title song, Mitchell explores—without drawing conclusions—the guidelines that might be applied to one's conduct: "You know it never has been easy/Whether you do or do not resign/Whether you travel the breadth of extremities/Or stick to some straighter line."
Much of the rest of the album reflects on the temptations, influences and desires that arise, including differing kinds of romantic possibility: the roguish, free spirit encountered in "Coyote" and the innocent, childlike stance of "A Strange Boy." Special emphasis is also placed on the complications generated by a life-style/profession (like Mitchell's ) that requires being on the road a lot.
Lack of Consistency
While the four songs cited plus the nicely designed road-weary "Black Crow" fit comfortably alongside Mitchell's best work, the remaining songs—in varying ways—lack the character and dimension to give 'Hejira" the consistency of the earlier quartet of albums.
"Refuge of the Roads," for instance, fades after a promising start into a somewhat wordy, uneventful exercise about using distance and separation as a psychological defense mechanism. "Furry Sings the Blues," a tribute to the Memphis blues scene, repeats too much of the naive innocence of "For Free."
Similarly, "Song for Sharon"—despite some excellent imagery—merely summarizes much of the viewpoint of "Summer Lawns." The album's final tune—"Blue Motel Room'—is a somewhat labored, overly cute parody of a torch song.
Mitchell's strength has been based equally on her technique and her viewpoint. The problem with "Summer Lawns" and "Hejira" is that they fail to reflect both traits. Where the last album suffered from a sometimes inaccessible technique, this one lacks the compelling, original viewpoint of her best work. Still, it is, by pop music standards, a superior album. It's simply her own standards that she fails to fully match.