When a writer with a limited vocabulary and a taste for hard rock attempts to review a Joni Mitchell album, it's somewhat like a medieval serf stepping forward to criticize his feudal lord.
Most contemporary musicians come up with one record of note. Successive albums are measured against the artist's past performance and most end up lacking.
Joni Mitchell rises above that trend. Each new album surpasses the standards of excellence she sets with the previous release.
She's one of the few popular artists in this day and age who can lay claim to a wealth of lyrical and musical talent. She's gone from folk-singing to rock to a stripped-down, jazz-like musical setting. She's left behind her original flower child image, emerging as a self-assured, cool, remote artist.
Hejira is the title of her latest release. In Arabic, hejira means the departure from one's homeland. The album cover and record-slip express that departure.
Images of the past float in the foreground and background of an portrait of Joni. A frozen lake forms the background. A flat dry prairie is superimposed on an abstracted Joni Mitchell torso.
On the back cover, another Canadian artist, Toller Cranston, weaves a skating spell around an innocent child dressed in a wedding gown. The child is an image from Joni's song, Song To Sharon, recalling her memories of childhood days in Maidstone, Sask.
On the record slip, Joni paints a black vision of herself, as a raven of night unfolding her wings. Her face is photographed to catch every harsh angle.
It's as if Joni is uncovering and accepting another facet of her multi-dimensioned self.
Muscially, the album is stripped to the bone. For all intents and purposes, Joni has done away with percussion. Her rhythm guitar sets the pace and creates the foundation for each song. Her ephemeral chords, a Joni Mitchell trademark, are said to be the result of an unusual guitar tuning style.
Because of the absence of the well-defined repetition of most modern music, it takes time to adjust to and appreciate Hejira. There's very few "hooks," or short repeated passages, in the lead guitar work of Larry Carlton or the bass-playing of Jaco Pastorius. Their contribution is jazz-like, laid-back and unpredictable.
Joni's chording is particularly striking in Song for Amelia. On the title cut, Hejira, Carleton's [sic] guitar sings duets with Joni. In Refuge for the Road [sic], the bass takes on the sound of a French horn. The occasional use of vibes and Neil Young's harmonica add more depth.
Joni's music is like the best of writing. All extraneous material has been cut away. Only that which is crucial is left. By its simplicity, it achieves a clarity of sound missing in contemporary music until the advent of this album.
Joni has always used a lack of roots as subject matter in her songs. By her own admission, she realizes how egocentric and serious her music is. But she needs her "melancholy blues" as the conduit through which her language can flow.
In Refuge of the Roads, she sings of a man who "knew my complications. 'Heart and humor and humility will lighten up your heavy load,' he said . . . I left him for the refuge of the road."
The few times she tries to be light-hearted, the attempt rings false -- as in Blue Motel Room.
Most of her songs deal with this perceived heartache -- the need for closeness to another, yet the inevitability of moving on, the inevitability of the hejira.
An awareness of universality is starting to creep into her work. In the title cut, she tells of a realization that we are only "particles of change . . . orbiting around the sun." But how, she asks, can she have that viewpoint when she's always "bound and tied to someone?"
"We all come and go unknown," she sings. "Each so deep and superficial, between the forceps and the stone."
Though this album, by its cover design, music and lyrics is cool and remote, Joni serves notice that she may again return to the warmer music of earlier days.
"Sharon, you've got a husband, a family and a farm.
I've got the apple of temptation and a diamond snake around my arm," she sings in Song for Sharon.
"But you still have your music and I've still got my eyes on the land and the sky.
You sing for your friends and your family.
I'll walk green pastures by and by."
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