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... Read More
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 Mitchell has withdrawn to her roots, to redefine them.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