It is the tug of war between the symbolist and the siren that makes Joni Mitchell’s albums alternately alluring and forbidding. On the one hand she is the most ruthlessly analytical member of the music-as-therapy songwriting school, and often her songs seem intent only on making private sense of her own experience. On the other hand, as a public performer, Mitchell wants to be heard and even enjoyed. To that end she conducts a cool flirtation with her audience. Like a Victorian gentlewoman, she seems afraid that we won’t respect her if she makes obvious advances. Thus, though Court and Spark showed Mitchell blossoming into accessibility, last year’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns brought back the arcane priestess of For the Roses. But now, with Hejira, Mitchell has gravely come a-courting once again.
It is true that she has all but abandoned melodies anyone can whistle, and her brief fling with the standard bridge seems to be over. But if she has denied her listeners memorable tunes and conventional formats, Mitchell displays other musical charms: new, seductive rhythms (not funk, but nearly as entrancing) and lush guitars. While Hejira (the title itself refers to Mohammed’s “flight from danger”) represents a retreat from the inviting accessibility of Court and Spark, it is a retreat with a self-renewing purpose. Mitchell has withdrawn to her roots, to redefine them.
Nearly all the new songs are built from the bare bones of her early work: modal guitar patterns and near-English-ballad structure. There are none of the frank flirtations with rock-pop Mitchell has used as lures in the past. Hejira contains no “Raised on Robbery,” no “Big Yellow Taxi.” The one concession to popular tastes is the dreamy, blowsy “Blue Motel Room,” which is too much tongue-in-cheek to sustain the torch-song illusion for long. For the rest, verse after long meditative verse is resolved in a single-line refrain which gains in meaning with repetition. The refrains (“Amelia, it was just a false alarm,” “Black crow flying in a blue sky,” etc.) are the only devices approaching a hook: recurring, memorable tags that sum up the song.
By writing for instruments that she plays well (guitars) and within a genre she understands (folk), Mitchell avoids the self-conscious artiness that marred The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Despite its apparent simplicity and spare instrumentation, the sound is as sophisticated and arresting as anything she’s done. Mitchell has taken advantage of the music’s structural freedom to write some of her most incisive and humorous lyrics. Her singing, too, has developed new warmth; it is breathier than ever. Where she once sounded simply ethereal, she now introduces a sexual roughness which she uses with precision. In fact, her voice is often flexible enough to create the continuity and the climaxes that her melodies lack. But the album is truly held together by the motion of the music, which is as unceasing and hypnotic as the freeways Mitchell describes in her songs.
For Hejira, as any glance at the cover or the lyrics will prove, is about the Highway: as a symbol of distance or flight; as a stage for encounters or revelations; as a communal umbilical cord relating separate souls and random experiences. The road runs through every song. The old pastoral conventions have been revived in Mitchell’s freeways. Like Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden or Mark Twain’s Mississippi, the highway is a place where the obligations of power and wealth, or merely the confines of civilization, can be momentarily forgotten.
The road is further represented as Mitchell’s only source of anonymity and acceptance. There she can masquerade as one in a gang of vagabonds (“The Refuge of the Roads”), drink and dance with the locals (“Coyote”) or find unencumbered solitude (“Hejira,” “Amelia”). The desire to escape, to start over, to make things simple again is universal, but in addition the artist often pays for success with a frightening isolation, a woman artist perhaps even more so.
A current of success-induced guilt ran through such earlier Mitchell songs as “For Free” and “People’s Parties.” Now she openly acknowledges the rewards of achievement along with the penalties, accepting the conflict as inevitable. Her new songs take a long, sometimes painful look at a problem of particular concern to ambitious women: how to reconcile the demands of one’s chosen work with the demands of love and family. The business of music with its irregular hours and frequent travel plays hell with steady love affairs, yet Mitchell can examine these problems with tolerance (“Coyote”) and humor (“Blue Motel Room”).
The really difficult conflict is between the long-taught myth that a woman should make a total commitment to love and the hard-won discovery that a career may require the same all-consuming passion. When Mitchell sings, “In our possessive coupling/ So much could not be expressed/ So now I am returning to myself/ These things that you and I suppressed,” she is deciding in favor of the artist’s need for unfettered experience and unhampered self-expression. But in “Song for Sharon,” Mitchell admits to the devastating attraction of bridal lace and all of the truelove fantasies that it represents. The only hint of rapprochement between love and music comes at the end of this song, and it is significant that the lines can be read in two ways—as a choice in favor of uncoupled independence or as a vision of a future, perfect love:
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
It is to Joni Mitchell’s credit that she comes to no glib conclusions. The conflict between freedom for art’s sake and the need for love forms the basis of most of her songs, and it is her uncertainty, the alternating warmth and chill, which is most fascinating. But if Mitchell is not always inviting, she is never complacent. With Hejira she redefines the elements of her music with as much courage as when she scrutinizes her aims and motivations. And despite the songs of love lost and plans changed, despite the urgent, often stark consciousness of mortality and the absence of comfortable solutions, Hejira is a curiously optimistic album. In “Black Crow,” Mitchell sings, “In search of love and music/ My whole life has been/ Illumination/ Corruption/ And diving, diving, diving, diving…,” her voice swooping and spiraling on the repeated word. That is what Hejira is about: it is not the answers that are most important but the search itself.