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Hejira
Joni Mitchell

Asylum 1087
Released: November 1976
Chart Peak: #13
Weeks Charted: 18
Certified Gold: 12/23/76

Joni MitchellWhen Joni Mitchell wrote "Urge for Going" years ago, she wasn't kidding. She has dealt with travel again and again in her music, travel and love, travel because of love, travel to sort out love, and even travel to escape love. Here, though, she has refined or distilled certain aspects of this into a seemingly irreducible poetry; she's articulated this connection between love and travel as she sees it, and she has gently fostered an acceptance of the whiteline fever in her soul, seeing the highway not as a place she is exiled to (as in "Hit the road, Jack, and don't you come back no more no more") but as a place of refuge.

Hejira, the word Mitchell chose as the name of the album and of an important song in it, is a word rich enough in connotation to suggest she is talking about running away with her troubles and faith instead of from them. Specifically, the word, usually spelled "hegira," means the start of the Mohammedan era, A.D. 622, when Mohammed, trying to escape persecution, migrated from Mecca to Medina. The word is applied more generally to emigrations of the faithful; the Koran calls such emigrants Muhajirun and tells them they are honored persons. The idea of there being honor and dignity in being a refugee from one's home -- one's love-nest in the case of this album, one's Mecca you might call it if the one you're dealing with loves love as much as Joni Mitchell has told us she does -- adds a certain distinction to the album. Mitchell's way of writing about travel as a person rather than as a performer is subtler than most of her colleagues can manage. Her lyrics are more direct and frontal than they've been recently and the lines are ear-catching. You may wonder what in blazes she's trying to do with sound, this time not because the melodies are difficult to track but because the arrangements seem so... well, unpremeditated. The instruments make sounds unlike themselves, almost random sometimes, except they do go together, and maybe this is what traveling music should sound like when the travel is for its own sake, rather than toward or away from something. We've been conditioned to think of traveling music as having a bee-line quality, with eight-wheel drivers heard through rhythm guitars, train whistles in harmonicas, and so forth. Mitchell's travels in the album are meandering, and her goals lie not at the end but in the process: "I've gone coast to coast just to contemplate."

Joni Mitchell - Hejira
Original album advertising art.
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A couple of times she seems to be writing to friends, putting down what she thinks to capture it for herself (as writers do) in "Amelia" and "Song for Sharon." And what she thinks about a lot is the old urge for going: "I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust... I dreamed of 747's over geometric farms... Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms." ..."Sharon, I left my man at a North Dakota junction, and I came to the Big Apple here to face the dream's malfunction." She unburdens herself quite a lot to Sharon, in fact, even to the point of facing what a temptation it is to stop, to settle down with a husband and the kind of life Sharon appears to have. That song runs for eight and a half minutes to and doesn't seem long at all, it deals so well with doubts and longings that go with this nomadic state. "There's a wide, wide world of noble causes," she says, "and lonely landscapes to discover... but all I really want to do right now is find another lover."

Images of herself traveling haunt every song in the album, in any case. Mitchell senses that movement symbolizes freedom down deep in the genes of the culture, and threatening freedom is one of the things love does. The culture, however, in its development, has conditioned and browbeaten us to put security ahead of both freedom and love, and this -- since we also need security to some degree -- has confused our contemplation of the old conflicting yens to be autonomous and yet to attach ourselves to others. One can have a little of all three, but the question is, what are the proportions that will work? Let us go and seek the answer, Mitchell says, not go somewhere, just go -- which means, first of all,we have to think positively about the going. A hejira is a flight from something, but not a panic-driven mad rush with one's mind, one's faith, in shambles; it is an emigration, a dignified process with hope in it. Most people, their security needs culturally inflated, don't do it. "...It made most people nervous," Joni says. "They just didn't want to know what I was seeing in the refuge in the roads."

Well, doing what makes other people nervous, being brave and seeing what she can learn from what ensues, is Joni Mitchell's job as she has defined it. She's stood up well to her own tough standards here, producing not answers or platitudes or advice but a way of grappling with the questions -- and producing literature, poetry, and, in the bargain, pushing back the frontiers of the sound of travel music a little.

- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 3/77.

Bonus Reviews!

The magical, hypnotic singing and songwriting style of Mitchell here gets one of its most fully-rounded, deepest-conceptualized workouts yet. The sound is purely distilled Joni: the high, ethereal voice; the slightly eerie chord tunings and Mitchell's rolling guitar arpeggios; the increasingly inventive use of spare, jazzy rhythm combo backings. The melody lines swirl and cascade like oriental tapestry patterns as Mitchell's voice smoothly fits seemingly impossible-to-sing lyric phrases into a distinctive music. The underlying idea here that holds together the songs and the surrealistic black-and-white cover photography is that of the wanderings of a free-spirited female who must always look back half-yearningly at the chances for lasting security she has passed up. A key image song in the LP development is "Black Crow," where the singer compares herself to a bird always "diving down to pick up on every shiny thing." Her cover photo costume emphasizes this black-wing look, along with other song images of the endless highway, childhood ice skating and dreams of the pertect marriage. Best cuts: "Blue Motel Room, " "Black Crow," "Song For Sharon," "Coyote," "Hejira."

- Billboard, 1976.

Album eight is most impressive for the cunning with which Mitchell subjugates melody to the natural music of language itself. Whereas in the past only her naive intensity has made it possible to overlook her old-fashioned prosody, here she achieves a sinuous lyricism that is genuinely innovative. Unfortunately, the chief satisfaction of Mitchell's words -- the way they map a woman's reality -- seems to diminish as her autonomy increases. The reflections of a rich, faithless, compulsively mobile, and compulsively romantic female are only marginally more valuable than those of her marginally more privileged male counterparts, especially the third or fourth time around. It ain't her, bub, it ain't her you're looking for. B+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

Spare recordings prominently featuring the bass of Jaco Pastorius. Mitchell sings of life on the road, literally and figuratively. * * *

- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

The former folkie hits the road on this dreamy, jazz-inflected spiritual journey, and with Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius and guitarist Larry Carlton riding shotgun, the musicianship is raised to dizzying heights. Gliding through this cathartic, ethereal wandering she revels in vapor trails and irascible bluesmen, spinning the odd lyric that haunts your sleep and songs that wrap you in warmth and melody. Utterly unique, spare and delicious, it's another bull's-eye for Joni. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

In 1974, Joni Mitchell sat at the apex of the pop music universe, adored by most critics and millions of fans for a series of brilliant, often achingly personal albums, a run that culminated that year with the monster hit Court And Spark. She then had the nerve to follow her muse into a smoky, jazz-drenched dive, a journey that led to her most supple and graceful album, Hejira.

Composed on the road, it is the only Mitchell album on which every tune is written on and for the guitar. The name stems from the prophet Muhammad's journey of exile from Mecca to Madina. In Mitchell's case, Hejira traces a cross-country road trip sparked by the end of an affair. The album marks the beginning of the singer/songwriter's profound relationship with the pioneering electric bassist Jaco Pastorius.

While Pastorious' genius fully flowered in the fusion supergroup Weather Report, he never played more beautifully than n the confines of a stripped down, tightly constructed five-minute Mitchell epic, like the opening track "Coyote." His supple melodic lines serve as a burnished counterpoint to her increasingly rich soprano, reaching a graceful climax on the mysteriously affecting "Amelia," a song that traces an arc of romantic discovery with references to previous tunes "Woodstock," "Both Sides Now," and "Cactus Tree."

Mitchell made more ambitious and popular albums, but, with its vivid imagery, poetic scope, and emotional insight, Hejira stands as a perfect melding of instrumental virtuosity and confessional storytelling.

- Andrew Gilbert, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

Mitchell's sense of melody gets more diaphonous as she leans more fully into jazz. Jaco Pastorius arrives with his fretless bass; his voicelike lines define "Coyote," an unsparing observation of male mating behavior with lyrics as jaw-droppingly vivid as ever: "He picks up my scent on his fingers/ While he's watching the waitresses' legs."

- Will Hermes, Rolling Stone, 5/19.

The ambitious Hejira is Joni Mitchell's ultimate jazz-folk statement. Setting restless-soul visions like "Amelia" and "Song for Sharon" to slippery instrumentals, with help from bassist Jaco Pastorius, she weighed the costs of dedicating her life to fearless self-expression where other artists might have settled for commercial success and easy happiness.

Hejira was chosen as the 133rd greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.

- Rolling Stone, 10/20.

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