I was partly inspired to write this post by a guy on you tube that performed a strangely affecting version of Amelia. Joni herself is criminally under-represented on Youtube, although perhaps if I were a copyright holder I would be more inclined to say that other acts are criminally over-represented on Youtube - in a very literal sense (lol). but I digress.... This post was prompted by the fact that I looked around for some written praise for my favourite songs and found that they were rarely discussed, hence this write up.
While Morrissey may have written wittier lyrics, I consider the two candidates for the prize of most affecting song ever written to have come from Joni Mitchell 1976 album Hejira. They are Amelia and the title track itself – Hejira.
The title of the album refers to the journey Mohammad's made in 622 A.D. to avoid persecution in Mecca. Like the prophet, Joni's Hejira is obviously one of purging and healing also. According to Brian Hinton's a badly written and somewhat untrustworthy biography, Mitchell wrote the album Hejira while fleeing from the break-up of her relationship with drummer John Guerin. Travelling across the US by Car, Joni dealt with her celebrity by often pretended to be other people, disguising herself by dressing in wigs (Hinton 1996, 190).
The song Amelia is an extended metaphor involving the Aviator Amelia Earhart whose plane was lost over the pacific in 1937. In the song Earhart stands for both female achievement in a man's world and the perilous and self destructive nature of ambition itself. At one point in the song Joni confesses she has spent her whole life in clouds at icy altitudes, alluded of course to her biggest hit song – Both Sides Now.
The track Hejira is far less easy to pin down. In a sense it is a reading of Joni's life on the road. A catalogue of her strange experiences and mood, while at the same time being an implied memento mori for home and security and all these things she left behind.
The lyrics to both songs, although they may be somewhat self consciously poetic at time, seem nevertheless to be a good fit for Wordsworth's dictum that poetry is "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotions recollected in tranquillity." When combined with the scarcity and power of the songs what you have is something crystalline and coldly beautiful.
It's hard to pin down exactly why these songs work as well as they do. It has a lot to do with pristine technique and execution. Like Leonard Cohen, Joni writes, writes and writes her poetry, and yet still manages not to overwrite. Lyrics that seem only intriguing at fist grow in power and stature with each repeated listen. It does not take a genius to infer that Joni was not a happy woman making Hejira. A feeling of melancholy infuses the work and gives it a cohesion that countless revisions would no doubt otherwise have fractured – as is the case with other Joni Mitchell recordings actually.
Ultimately, Joni understands balance. The density of her writing is counterpoised with the sparse arrangements, and here Jaco Pastorius' bass lends the songs an air of spontaneity, not found in either the lyrics or in Joni's precise playing. Despite being narcissistic and self absorbed, the songs are, I think, a genuine attempt to think through the narcissism and self-absorption of her profession. While there are no answers, in the sense of epiphanies, Hejira does presents songs which border on intimate, if not forensic in self examination at times. However, Joni's gaze is unflinching in her search for truth and the songs, in their own way, become a kind of palliative for lesser mortals - a comfort to listen to when you are feeling down, yes certainly, and listening to Joni's songs bequeath to one's otherwise insignificant sorrow (in the grand scheme of things) a sense of epic and cinematic grandeur.
The album's art work is worth a mention. On the from sleeve Joni is decked out like a ingénue from the 1930s, complete with fur coat (a bit of a contradiction for this noted eco supporter surely?) On the inner sleeve she is dressed as a black crow wings spread anticipating Kate Bush's metamorphosis as a bat on Never for Ever.