Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira”: An (Arguably) Underappreciated Masterpiece

joni mitchell hejira

Everyone has albums they come back to again and again, albums they would take to their proverbial desert island. Such albums have made a deep connection to the heart, and to life experience, sometimes in ways we barely understand, or only slowly unpack as we grow older. For me there’s no contest. The album I never tire of, which speaks to me instantly and always, whose meaning has evolved and deepened for me over time: Joni Mitchell’s Hejira.

A bit of brush-clearing first:

I have many friends who simply can’t get past some aspects of Mitchell’s performances. There’s a prickliness in some of her work (and most definitely in her public statements), which I believe was well-earned through the struggle of navigating the classic rock boys club, but which can be confusing and off-putting at times. Her voice is a frequent focus of criticism, many finding it “pretentious” or “mannered.” I see the truth in these critiques, but at least on her best work (and I consider this album the best of her best), the rewards far outweigh the obstacles.

With that out of the way: if you haven’t heard Hejira, go right now and do that. It’s on YouTube in its entirety, though I strongly recommend buying it. Nothing I say can do it justice, but I can highlight some of what is so powerful about it in my view.

Mitchell’s rhythm guitar playing is unique and gorgeous. As elsewhere in her work, she relies on a wide range of bespoke tunings to achieve distinctive and rich voicings. On the opening track, “Coyote,” for example, she tunes to CGDFCE, a very odd setup which makes the hooky, haunting, chugging rhythm part quite easy to play.

Hejira is in some sense a concept album, documenting a long road trip across the country and back, after a tour which ended early in recrimination and romantic disappointment. There is a strong sense of place in every single song, and Mitchell evokes conversations and situations effortlessly and compellingly, giving other people in her life and travels a voice, telling fragments of their stories in ways which make them feel like people I have known myself. This kind of lyric writing is just plain hard to do well, and she makes it sound easy.

Mitchell has said that she found the “dead, distant” bass sound of 70s recordings very unsatisfying, and was told she should talk to Jaco Pastorius. If all this album accomplished was to give us the glory of the parts Jaco overdubbed on four of the songs, it would be a treasure. But it goes beyond the sheer beauty of those bass parts…Jaco seemed to understand Mitchell’s music intuitively, and everything he does makes the rest of her conception shine more brightly. The interplay between his bass and her guitar and voice feels like a playful but serious conversation between old friends.

And it wasn’t just Jaco who Mitchell gave scope to here. John Guerin on drums and Larry Carlton on electric guitar deliver some their best, most tasteful work, with just the right amount of assertiveness, skirting a line between folk-pop and jazz in a way I’ve never heard matched.

I can’t know what Hejira’s deeper meaning is to Mitchell, beyond the narrative elements she is playing with, but to me it evokes a deep longing, and serves as a somewhat sardonic but heartfelt elegy for failed dreams and broken promises, personal and social.

The atmosphere on this album sticks to me like glue, gets in everywhere, and every musical and production choice supports that effect. Mitchell and her producer Henry Lewy achieved great variety between tracks without once violating the sense of a continuous and encompassing world – it is a spectacular achievement.

And what is atmosphere on an album but the result of sound? So finally, that’s what makes Hejira what it is, more than any of the aspects I have discussed. It is a sound which envelops and caresses, teases and reveals, soothes and surprises, gently prodding the listener to offer attention to the story of “this hitcher…this prisoner, of the fine white lines, of the white lines on the free free way.”

Mitchell’s overall body of work has its issues, and her relationship with fame and the business of music has been…challenging. But no accounting of the history of modern songwriting and recording is complete without consideration of this kaleidoscopically beautiful album.

Ken Hymes

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Ken Hymes is a writer and recording artist living in Richmond VA. He’s been gigging and making albums more or less under the radar for three decades. His latest output is "Long Gone," an eclectic journey through American history, told through a mix of originals and public domain material. If you have an old copy of the original Night of the Living Dead, you may have heard his music for the parody film Night of the Living Bread.

24 comments on “Joni Mitchell’s “Hejira”: An (Arguably) Underappreciated Masterpiece

  1. Avatar
    paul chapman

    Song for Sharon..that is all

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    She – her words, her music, her beauty & strength – has been my salvation for almost 5 decades.

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    Jon Cheffings

    What is fascinating for me is the contrast between Hejira and Hissing of Summer Lawns. The spare tautness of Hejira vs the lushness and decadence of HoSL. What I would love to know is what transpired in Mitchell’s life between those two albums that drew her down a different path.

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      To me, Hissing, Hejira and Don Juan together are a complete work. Trying to pick one to be the “best” is like trying to decide which section of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is the best section.

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    Marc Bieler

    Wow you hit it on the head! This album is my favorite JM- amazing lyrics and haunting instrumentation. I never tire of these songs

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    Mitchell was the producer and Lewy was the engineer.

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    It’s brilliant. It’s the winter. It’s the cold and darkness. There was something inside of it that reflects something very wooded. Very deep. I played it off the rims. Still do.

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    Ralph Milliken

    Although I’ve probably listened to Blue and Court and Spark way more than Hejira over the years I believe that Hejira is definitely her masterpiece! What a great album. I also love the live versions of the songs on Shadows and Light because they exude a little more energy than the studio versions.

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    Hi Ken. Thank you for your piece about a masterpiece! HEJIRA has also been MY favorite Joni album for three decades, and it is one of my 10 desert island albums for sure. I revere all the same details you mentioned about the album…it is so atmospheric, personal, philosophical and road-savvy that even if you didn’t take Joni’s exact journey yourself, it’s easy to relate to if you have been on ANY trips. I’m always pleased to see new essays about this amazing album, and I appreciate what you wrote very much.

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    Maureen Sullivan

    I heard this album when I was 12 years old. I’m 53 now. It made me a lot of what I am today.

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    This masterpiece has been my road trip favorite since I dubbed it from the LP to a cassette tape, then finally to a CD. It’s always in my car. Having said that, the LP is never far from my turntable. I find Hejira to be the peak of Joni Mitchell’s songwriting. I love all her work but Hejira is the Masterpiece! Definitely a desert island top ten!

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    Frank Mulliken

    Wow. I thought it was just me.

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    I love listening to Hejira when I`m on a long road trip. Traffic jams, people cutting in too closely. This album sooths my soul when I`m driving.

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    Total brilliance. One of the great song writers and performers of the 20th century.

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    It is a definite favorite of mine. In many ways like For the Roses.

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    I am also very fond of this album – I consider it to be part of the peak arc of Mitchell’s career. Though her early work is lovely – Blue being particularly revered – it is the stretch from Court and Spark through Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter that seems to me her best work. And of these, I suggest that The Hissing of Summer Lawns is beer best album – or maybe just my favorite – with it’s mix of sophisticated music and elegant and profound poetry. It is one of my favorite buns and one I feel compelled to re-establish often, for the sake of my soul. With all due respect…

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    Great music. Thank you. Also it’s “deserted island” vice “desert island”. ????

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    Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.

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    Patricia Bergantini

    I always thought BLUE was her best.

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    I own this album. Rarely listen to it. Pales in comparison to “Court & Spark” and “Blue.” But to each his own.

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      Justin Tanner

      It’s certainly a more complex difficult album. I demands a refined taste level.

  20. Avatar

    Very well written Mr. Hymes. This is most certainly my fave JM album for many of the reasons you eloquently describe. It was one of several integral albums to the soundtrack of my 21st year of life.Give me Hissing of Summer Lawns and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter as well; my perfect triumvirate of her catalog for me. As Mr. Keith perfectly states in his post above, “total brilliance”. Indeed!

  21. Avatar
    Marc Bieler

    You have put into words what I feel from this work. A brilliant album and a wonderful analysis of why it is so magical.

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    Adrian Vincent

    Great article, thank you. Joni Mitchell is really about growth. We can’t have Hejira without Song to a Seagull or Ladies of the Canyon. Each album is about growth, change, and our willingness to “get there”. When we are listening to Joni, we are realizing our own changes and how we got here. Where we stand now. We feel it in others who are adventurers in human emotions. If you do not have personal growth, I wouldn’t expect that you can here the arc of her experiences in her work. Hejira captures her exploration more closely. But it is there in all her work, including Turbulent Indigo and Shine.

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