Musical progress and emotional stasis from Blue (1971) to Hejira (1976).

4th July 2015

Mike Taylor1 & Fiona Taylor2

1University of Bristol, Bristol, UK.
2Oakleigh Farm House, Crooked End, Ruardean GL17 9XF, UK.

In the five years between Joni Mitchell's albums Blue (1971) and Hejira (1976), her composition, instrumental performances and vocal timbre all underwent dramatic changes, resulting in a growth of sophistication that is also reflected in the allusive quality of the lyrics. However, this musical growth is not matched by an emotional growth. The ostensible subjects of the Hejira songs are more varied than those of Blue, encompassing aviation, urban decay and pilgrimage as well as personal songs of relationship. Yet this apparent diversity of subject matter conceals a surprisingly consistent underlying focus on the same dichotomy that is the subject of Blue: the conflicting desires for security and freedom, both emotional and geographical. Mitchell in 1976 appears still caught in the dilemma that had snared her by 1971: the inability to commit to a relationship that provides the sense of belonging that she longs for. While the later album suggests growing maturity by expressing the conflict in a more sophisticated manner, the foundational issue remains unchanged.

Hejira represents an artistic step forward from Blue because the indecision and ambiguity that are Mitchell's theme are present much more strongly in the music as well as the words. The unchanged nature of her emotional stranding is reflected, consciously or unconsciously, in the irresolution of the music in Hejira — for example, the lack of a chorus in any of the nine songs, the harmonic instability of most songs, and the tendency not to resolve to tonic chords. Where Blue tells us what Mitchell is feeling, Hejira invites us to discover it, and to feel it, for ourselves.

In the end, the album's opening line — “no regrets” — is a lie. But the lyrics never quite admit this. It is only the music that gives the game away, showing us Mitchell's failure to mature emotionally.

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