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Joni: Summer Lawns, Grey Gardens   Print

by Michael Watts
Melody Maker
November 27, 1976

The word "hejira" (sometimes spelt "hegira") is specifically an Arabic reference to the flight in the Seventh century of Mohammed from his birthplace in Mecca to Medina where he died, a flight that is regarded as marking the start of the Moslem era. The Arabic hijrah actually means a departure from one's own country.

On her new album, released almost a year to the week after THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS, Joni Mitchell uses it in a highly personal sense to represent a flight into herself, into her own emotional system, where the artist can reflect upon the painful necessities for that flight.

Here the lovers who are left behind rise up to confront her, and the wounds of her own making are reopened and examined. "In our possessive coupling so much could not be expressed," she sings in the title song. "So now I am returning to myself these things that you and I suppressed."

If THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS was highly enigmatic in its lyrics of social observation, which seemed to be about the corruption of that which is natural and the moral ambiguities of suburban life, then HEJIRA is very much a return to her confessional style, although the mood is somewhat different. There has always been a dark side to her work, but she has never sounded more isolated, more enclosed within herself, than in these songs of perpetual, melancholy journeys "across the burning desert" and "thru the snow and pinewood trees … porous with travel fever," landscapes of almost supernatural detachment in which she voices her soul-searchings.

HEJIRA is all shades of grey: in its lyrics, in its music, and even, in its cover art, which mostly shows a soft ashen photograph of a vast expanse of smooth ice. The singer is skating on it, the folds of her clothes beating about her. In Black Crow she compares her life to that of the "dark and ragged" bird, "diving down to pick up on every shiny thing." And in Song For Sharon she sings of her childhood illusions of marriage, while far out on the ice a girl in a wedding dress quietly awaits the young man skating before her. "I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes," Ms. Mitchell writes in Amelia, a song possessed by the ghost of Amelia Earhart, the ill-fated pioneer flyer. "Maybe I've never really loved."

Most of HEJIRA is similarly sombre, although she has too great a sense of beauty and delicacy to ever be bleak. Both Coyote and A Strange Boy are about troubled relationships with men, the former a doomed encounter with a hustling kind of man, the latter an affair with one unwilling to grow up. Furry Sings The Blues is a wonderfully precise evocation of the famous Beale Street in Memphis, as well as being a tribute to the blues singer Furry Lewis, to W. C. Handy (the Father of the Blues), and, indeed, to the blues itself; but the song is given poignancy because Mitchell realizes the old singer is interested only in the booze and the cigarettes his visitor has brought in her shiny limousine. Even the slow, jazzy Blue Motel Room, the most different-sounding number on the album, stresses the separation of lovers, although there's a wry humour in her comparison of their situation to America and Russia, "always keeping score." But the album closes on a deeper note with a song that could just as well have been its title, Refuge Of The Roads. The final image is brilliant and desolating; a lifeless, empty photograph seen in a highway service station, of the earth taken from space.

Her use of language, in fact, is pretty marvellous. Where SUMMER LAWNS was sometimes unfathomable, these lyrics, couched in a more or less narrative style, ring with the sharp clarity of crystal, whilst still preserving their sense of mystery. Although there are one or two jarring moments — the implied rhyming of "dolls" and "falls", the rather pat description of pawn shops as "gold tooth caps in the grey decay, they chew…" (both from Furry Sings The Blues) — each word and line feels as if it's been carefully weighed (as well it might, considering that she has had a year in which to polish her lyrics). Not only does she have a great visual sense, she is literary and original, as the phrase "between the forceps and the stone" attests. As a popular lyricist in the romantic tradition, she has no equal outside the Broadway musical.

The qualification about this album's success stems indirectly, in fact, from the lyrics. THE HISSING OF SUMMER LAWNS was criticised in some quarters (thought not by me) for being purely a vehicle for her lyrics, a criticism, however, which has some application to HEJIRA. This is the first Joni Mitchell record for which the song sheet is indispensable.

Since COURT AND SPARK and her increasing inclination towards jazz-based music, for which she has appropriated Tom Scott's L.A. Express, her writing has become less melodic. On SUMMER LAWNS only Shades Of Scarlet Conquering could be said to be tuneful and accessible and even that was a difficult song.

HEJIRA has barely any recognizable melody. It's more like a series of tone-poems, of gentle ghostly echoes. The playing is very muted and low-key, the jazz influences introverted, so that each song (with the partial exception of Blue Motel Room) unfolds against a simple rhythm, usually distinguished by Mitchell's jangling rhythm guitar and the haunting bass of Jaco Pastorius. One remembers the nuances —the insistent horn lines of Refuge Of The Roads, the plaintive clarinet on the title track, her own guitar work on Amelia (perhaps the album's most memorable song). It's a musical idea that contributes to the album's sense of timelessness, of the absolute, but it doesn't quite banish the fond recollection of earlier records with their emphasis on strong tunes. At the risk of sounding crass, I should think the A&R people at Asylum will have a hard time culling a single from this album.

HEJIRA is an album of textures. It's a work of autumnal hues. The summer lawns fade from to green to gold to brown to …

 

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