Collected Works: Music
by Joni Mitchell
A guitar arpeggio propels us through an open American setting, turning like steady tyres on a sweeping stretch of highway. The smooth ramblings of a fretless bass parallel the undulating landscape, guiding a delicate, capricious falsetto. With a mention of Benny Goodman, a cheery clarinet appears, before retreating quietly, a lonely roadside diner hurtling towards the windscreen then shrinking away in the wing mirror.
Hejira was conceived and largely written on a road trip across the United States, and is built upon that journey. Listening, we imagine white lines flickering past on tarred freeways, while Staten Island and the Gulf of Mexico act as backdrops to recounted anecdotes. Aptly, the jazz idioms heard here cover fresh ground for Joni Mitchell, whether the layered chordal phrasing of ‘Amelia’ or the meandering harmonica of ‘Furry Sings the Blues’.
‘Blue Motel Room’ nods to the genre’s colourful timbres: we hear cloudy harmonies, the plucks of double bass strings, and the touch of brush sticks on drum skin. The instruments share the rhythmic freedom of Mitchell’s ornate vocals, racing through ‘Honey, tell them you got …’ then standing at length on the word ‘germs’. Each part sounds spontaneous, reflecting the dynamic of gifted soloists improvising as a collective.
Looking to the album’s cover image, with its overlaying of the artist and the sandy terrain, it is clear whose voyage is depicted. Joni Mitchell’s output has been steered by a desire to find new musical languages with which to work. In the case of Hejira, the idiosyncrasies of jazz are another influence, not a blueprint that envelops all. The road may unveil unfamiliar scenery, but the travelling beholder remains the same.
Words by Hugh Maloney
More to discover
You can listen to 'Blue Motel Room' here, 'Amelia' here, and 'Furry Sings the Blues' here. Ron Rosenbaum has written about the song 'Amelia' for Slate, and Sean O'Hagan has written an overview of Joni Mitchell's 1971-76 albums for The Observer (UK).