Friday, June 24, 2011

“Hejira,” by Joni Mitchell

In 1974, Joni Mitchell was at her commercial peak, placing a #2 album (Court and Spark), containing two of her biggest hits, “Free Man In Paris” and the top ten smash, “Help Me.” Near the end of 1975, she released the eagerly awaited follow-up, the elegant Hissing of Summer Lawns, which Rolling Stone magazine trounced in January of 1976, calling it “insubstantial,” “eccentric,” and “uninspired jazz-rock,” further describing the new Mitchell songs as lacking “harmonic focus,” being “self-indulgent,” “pretentiously chic,” and “boring.” The venomous Rolling Stone review concluded with a description of the last song on the album, “Shadows and Light,” suggesting it sounded “like a long, solemn fart.” It’s important to note, here, that the album would be vindicated with time, lauded by fans and critics over the years as one of Mitchell’s very best efforts.

But while the album was well received in its first few weeks of release, it didn’t contain a “sell-through” hit single, usually propelling album sales, which may be the reason why just four months later, the remarkable Summer Lawns had disappeared from the upper reaches of the pop charts. Stung by the apparent “failure” of Summer Lawns, Mitchell joined friends on a road trip in early 1976 from California to Maine, renting a car and opting to make the return voyage solo: an opportunity to reflect and to recharge. The songs for Hejira were born during that solitary drive across the United States.

The album title, Hejira, is taken from the Arabic word, “hijra,” which means breaking off relations or migrating into honorable exile, a reference to the departure of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca for his criticism of the for-profit, polytheism of the Meccan religion in his time (More information than you needed? Fair enough). In like manner, Mitchell was retreating from the profit-driven music industry to map out her next move and to fortify artistic direction. Mitchell described the genesis of Hejira, “I wrote the album while traveling cross-country by myself, and there is this restless feeling throughout it: the sweet loneliness of solitary travel.” With prominent imagery of smoke-streaked skies, highways, small towns, and snowy landscapes, the album was written solely on guitar. And when recording the songs months later, Mitchell followed suit, using only instruments with which one might be able to travel (i.e., sans piano, drums, etc.).

Mitchell's musical interests were expanding from both the folk and pop scene of the era, toward ambling, jazz-inspired constructs using a fresh range of sounds. Less propelled by stoking the “star maker machinery behind the popular song” and no longer interested in verse-chorus-verse organization, Mitchell strove to build moods with lyrics and sounds. In fact, the album has few (any?) hummable tunes, but like cigarette smoke, Hejira’s songs linger in the air. But in its bicentennial year, America seemed more interested in berating women than celebrating their notable contributions (i.e., “Devil Woman” and “Evil Woman” were two of the year’s biggest hits).