Hejira perhaps remains as Mitchell’s most complex album, an expression of vision so profound that it makes her dense, adventurous earlier music almost sound straightforward in comparison.
It’s hard to imagine anyone listening to Joni Mitchell’s protean, ever-surprising discography during her freewheeling run of the 1970s and find any of it simplistic or compromised. Of course, the average person isn’t Mitchell, who found her rock-based collaborators limited in expressing some of the more complex subtleties of her already dense, baroque sound. Seeking a shake-up, Mitchell hired session men known more for their jazz bona fides than a rock background. The result, Hejira, remains perhaps her knottiest, most complex album, an expression of vision so profound that it makes her dense, adventurous earlier music almost sound straightforward in comparison.
The credits for the album boast a number of experienced jazzbos, but the name that most immediately leaps out is that of bass wünderkind Jaco Pastorius. Mitchell met the young instant legend after most of the album had already been recorded but was so taken with the man that she had him overdub four of the LP’s tracks. That Pastorius was a last-second, serendipitous addition is almost baffling giving just how thoroughly he sets up the album’s style and ambition with the warm, spacious fretless bass that opens the album on “Coyote.” Pastorius’s phrasing weaves small burbles to Mitchell’s shimmering licks, adding multiple counterpoints to Mitchell’s soaring voice and stop-start electric fills until the singer’s ode to a one-night stand with Sam Shepard sounds as dense as a King Crimson track. On the title track, Pastorius is foregrounded in the mix, rising from the airy production with warbling, bent chords as Bobbye Hall’s percussion twinkles occasionally behind him. Pastorius’s rockier side comes out on the bounce he puts into the driving “Black Crow,” where Larry Carlton’s sustained chords float over the sidewinding bass.
Pastorius’s contributions mark a sharp contrast with even the most complex tracks Mitchell had recorded to that point. His elegant phrasing and dense contrapuntal interplay sets a standard that is followed even in the tracks that do not bear his stamp. “Furry Sings the Blues,” a somber word-picture of meeting blues legend Furry Lewis in Memphis, boasts Neil Young dropping in to lay down gusts of powerfully blown harmonica offset by the weary hi-hat wash of John Guerin and Max Bennett’s halting bassline. “A Strange Boy” constantly folds back in on itself, the loping guitar lines collapsing and reforming just a hair’s breadth out of sync until they start to bend and warp into groans and moans. No song on the album picks a riff and stays with it, instead constantly reshaping around a core theme in true jazz tradition while keeping everything coherent and concise enough to still make pop radio.
Lyrically, Mitchell remains one of the best of all time, by this point arguably the greatest storyteller in pop history. Less verbose and tongue-tied than some contemporaries like Dylan or Cohen, Mitchell nonetheless crafts narratives with such precise, evocative language that entire novellas seem to be written in just a few minutes. In “A Strange Boy,” she confronts an entire miasma of post-Vietnam confusion by focusing on a rambunctious, terminally stunted adult who “Even the war and the navy/ Couldn’t bring…to maturity.” Skirting around a direct political attack, Mitchell instead frames her summary of contemporary malaise as a conversation, demanding the man grow up, only for him to bitterly respond, “Give me one good reason why.” There are less serious topics that nonetheless showcase the artist’s dextrous writing with no less clarity, as on “Black Crow,” which is little more than her account of what a pain in the ass it is for her to go to her own second home. As Mitchell lists off the various ferries, planes and other forms of transport required to get her to her cabin retreat, her first-world-problem complaining morphs into a reveries of flying straight to her place like a black crow, stopping only when distracted by various shiny objects spotted on the earth below.
As ever, Mitchell’s narrative skills are most distinctly, powerfully expressed in her love songs, and Hejira has a handful of her finest. “Coyote,” one of her endless supply of tales about a brief, passionate dalliance reaching its conclusion, etches out the gulf in personalities between her and her lover in nothing more than a few lines about how she is “up all night in the studios” while he is an early riser to work on his ranch. And before the first verse is even done, Mitchell perfectly summarizes that feeling of a spark that fails to ignite when she sings, “There’s no comprehending/ Just how close to the bone and the skin and the eyes/ And the lips you can get/ And still feel so alone.” An even stronger current of regret runs through the title track, which details her breakup with the album’s own session drummer, Guerin. Mitchell lays down the gauntlet early by calling herself “A defector from the petty wars/ That shell shock love away” before capturing in sensory, Van Morrison-esque images the memories of time and place where things started to slip, such as listening to Benny Goodman wafting from some nearby source while they were on a walk. As these memories turn cold and dead in her hands, mourning is gradually supplanted by that quintessential Mitchell resolve, to buck up in order to face the next cycle of hope and heartbreak, not with optimism but the weary experience of a battle-hardened soldier.