The All-Timers #4: Joni Mitchell's "Amelia"

The All-Timers #4: Joni Mitchell's "Amelia"

In this series, I write about one of my all-time favorite songs. There's no rhyme or reason to the order. Check out past editions here.

Paul Simon, rocking a khaki suit, aging pageboy cut, and spray-on-looking-ass beard combo, fresh off of a performance of "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover," accepts the Album of the Year award at the 1976 Grammys. In his speech after Still Crazy After All These Years' triumph, Simon famously says, "I'd like to thank Stevie Wonder, who didn't release an album this year." Get a load of the gall on Paul! You don't need to be coy, Roy!

Between '72 and '76, Wonder was on a historic tear. He released five albums, all considered classics, three that the Recording Academy deemed worthy of Album of the Year trophies. Innervisions got the honor in '74, Fulfillingness' First Finale in '75, and Songs in the Key of Life in '77. The man was a dynasty unto himself.

But you know who else was operating on a '90s Jordan level in the mid-'70s, and who the Grammys all but ignored until after MJ won his third ring in '93? No, not Paul Simon—despite his "Aw shucks, I'm not a decorated veteran like Stevie" act, he already had eight Grammys gathering dust on his mantle by '76. I'm talking about Joni Mitchell, who released one near-perfect album per calendar year between 1974 and 1976. She has one Grammy in a category that doesn't even exist anymore (Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s)) to show for those three albums.

By the time 1974's Court and Spark was released, Mitchell, much like Stevie Wonder during this period, was an established star transitioning into a different era of her career. Since the late '60s, she'd been a pioneering force in folk-rock and a leading figure in the Laurel Canyon scene of dreamy-looking, post-hippie idealists-turned-realists thoughtfully strumming acoustic guitars and not-so-thoughtfully sleeping with each other and then thoughtfully ruminating over the interpersonal messes they created. But Mitchell had grown disillusioned with folk and bored of rock and roll. Like many other chin-stroking white artists before and after her, she hit her Saturn return and sought new inspiration in jazz.

Because this is Joni Mitchell we're talking about, and not the Beastie Boys, this was a graceful transition that, in the minds of many, elevated her art. Court and Spark dipped its toes in the water, recruiting jazz-rock group The L.A. Express as Mitchell's backing/touring band but maintaining a sense of California breeziness that made the more idiosyncratic chords and grooves go down easier. 1975's The Hissing of Summer Lawns leans more experimental, incorporating early synthesizers as well as a Burundian drum ensemble, with Mitchell's songwriting heavy on literary references and stream-of-consciousness structure. I couldn't say enough good things about either album, but I could say more good things about the final piece of this triumvirate, Hejira, and even more good things about the thing I initially set out to say good things about some 600-plus words ago: the song "Amelia."

"Amelia" appears second on Hejira's tracklist, which often feels entirely too early for such a stark, otherworldly composition. It follows the sprightly "Coyote," which contrasts in rollicking arrangement and lyrical playfulness, but fits the theme of restless, rootless searching that pervades every corner of the album.

Hejira starts with a "prisoner of the white lines on the freeway" and ends by "taking refuge in the roads." There aren't necessarily lessons to be learned within this arc. Mitchell doesn't magically emerge from her mythic quest healed of all the wounds that sparked it. But if there's a skeleton key capable of unlocking what she's after on Hejira, it's "Amelia." It perfectly conveys the confusing, spiritually fulfilling feeling of driving by yourself for hours on end through alien landscapes, what Mitchell later described as “The sweet loneliness of solitary travel."

The song hovers in a way that straight-up rock music cannot. It's the stuff of transcendentally repetitive krautrock/komische, ambient music, fingerstyle guitarists like John Fahey and Bert Jansch, and most crucially, modal jazz, the song's main structural inspiration. "Modal" refers to the use of different musical modes throughout a composition, rather than sticking to one tonal center—"Amelia," for instance, is constantly alternating between two different keys. It's got an equally distinctive structure, a repeated 23-bar loop that makes use of both 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures.

"Amelia" never resolves. Its chord progressions do not follow Western traditions that build towards cathartic payoff. In a Pitchfork Sunday Review a couple of years ago, Jenn Pelly wrote, "The song’s harmonic character is an arresting question mark, both unsettled and at ease, just like solo travel, knowing there might be something, someone missing yet savoring the space created by absence."

Mitchell's strange combination of finger-picking and strumming on this song still baffles me. For the first few years of listening to her guitar part, I was certain that it was played by two guitarists, or maybe one plus a bassist plucking very far up the neck. This is complex music, but it's not dizzying, dense, or solo-heavy like much of the jazz that inspired Mitchell's compositional choices. The only accompaniment for her vocals and guitar are Victor Feldman's glittering vibraphone in the right ear and Larry Carlton's wisps of lead guitar in the left. No drums, no bass.

Mitchell sings about six jets leaving six lines of vapor in the desert sky, comparing them to the strings on a guitar. Especially with Carlton hovering around the song's central melody, leaving fleeting contrails of delicate harmonics, it's not hard to understand the metaphor.

"Amelia" builds on the increasingly impressionistic lyrical approach explored on The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Mitchell's perspective bounces from inside her car to up in one of those jets, or a commercial flight from her past, using the vantage point to illustrate her isolating sense of remove but also explain her gift of observation: "I've spent my whole life at icy altitudes/And looking down on everything."

But back up a bit—this is a breakup song. "I wish that he was here tonight/It's so hard to obey/His sad request of me to kindly stay away." Allegedly, Mitchell wrote "Amelia" about her split with her then-drummer John Guerin. "Maybe I've never really loved/I guess that is the truth" are the lines that precede the "icy altitudes" part, suggesting that Mitchell's been driving down deserted highways and staring forlornly from airplane windows for a long, long time. She's looking for something, but it's not love. That's the "false alarm" that pops up at the end of every stanza.

This song is addressed to someone—not Mitchell's ex, not the clouds, not the road, but Amelia Earhart. The famed aviation pioneer was also constantly in search of something, namely her next feat, the next item on the "First Woman To _____" checklist. Even in her marriage, Earhart was destroying societal norms. In a letter she gave to her husband on their wedding day in 1931, she wrote: "I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any midaevil [sic] code of faithfulness to me nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly... I may have to keep some place where I can go to be by myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinement of even an attractive cage."

The place Mitchell sought after her breakup with Guerin was the road, first driving from LA to Maine with two friends, then continuing alone onto Florida, and finally back to California. She wrote "Amelia" in Arizona, near the tail end of her journey. Maybe that's why it's able to scoop up so many of the album's other experiences—the optimistic wanderlust of "Refuge of the Roads," the depressing rainy day spent in Savannah on "Blue Motel Room," the "comfort in melancholy" found on Hejira's title track—and poetically summarize each emotion in a line or two.

"In this song, I was thinking of Amelia Earhart and addressing it from one solo pilot to another," Mitchell said in 1996, "Sort of reflecting on the cost of being a woman and having something you must do." Her exact mission may not have been as clearly defined as Earhart's was, but she's entered a similar echelon of great women who are revered for their life's work. Forget the Grammys' too-little-too-late enthusiasm for throwing an award at everything Mitchell has touched since she stopped releasing new studio material in the late 2000s—it now seems like a near-consensus opinion that Mitchell is comfortably enshrined in the canon, where she belongs.

If Guerin hadn't asked Mitchell to "kindly stay away," or if she ran back to their relationship, we probably wouldn't have "Amelia." It took her days of winding her way around the country searching for inspiration to arrive here, at a song that moves me in ways no other has. It may not be a groundbreaking transatlantic flight or a mysteriously fateful attempt at circumnavigating the globe, but because of Joni Mitchell's restless search for meaning, countless others have found it in her music.

BOI (Best Of Inbox) #24

Demersal - "androide identiteter"

Location: Odense, Denmark // Genre: metallic screamo // RIYL: Botch-meets-ISIS // From: "Demersal", out 5/10

Hayes Noble - "Nothing Else"

Location: Spokane, WA via Galena, IL // Genre: fuzz-rock // RIYL: if the rosters of Exploding In Sound and In The Red circa 2014 played a game of red rover // From: "As It Was, As We Were," out 6/21.

Kiran Leonard - "Pass Between Houses"

Location: London via Manchester // Genre: art rock // RIYL: Young Jesus if their chief influences were Tony Levin-era King Crimson and Sunny Day Real Estate's "How It Feels To Be Something On" // From: "Real Home," out 4/17.

Lamniformes - "A Hair Out of Place"

Location: Broooklyn // Genre: dark electro-pop // RIYL: How To Dress Well, Devon Welsh // From: "The Lonely Atom"

Mallory Hawk - "All Your Troubles"

Location: Queens // Genre: indie folk // RIYL: Trace Mountains, Alex G at his saddest // From: "All Your Troubles / Run Until They Catch You"

ZerO Point Energy - "Closer To You"

Location: Brooklyn // Genre: classic indie rock // RIYL: mid-period Girlpool with J Mascis on guitar // From: "Tilted Planet," out 5/17

Track of the Week

Thou - "I Feel Nothing When You Cry"

Location: Baton Rouge // Genre: sludge // RIYL: if Thou followed up their many grunge covers with an album of Smashing Pumpkins ones // From: "Umbilical," out 5/31.

I know I've said that I try to use this section to highlight music I usually wouldn't cover for other outlets, with Thou, I couldn't resist. Although the Louisiana sludge/grunge band haven't released a solo full-length since 2018's excellent Magus, they haven't exactly disappeared in the interim, dropping stellar collaborative albums with Mizmor and Emma Ruth Rundle, a video game score, and covers compilations, most of which take on '90s grunge titans like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains. Even so, it's exciting to have a new legitimate Thou album on the horizon. "I Feel Nothing When You Cry" is more active and rollicking than the band's most stereotypically sludgy fare, and it's got me itching to see Thou perform live again.

All Inbox Infinity picks are available in playlist form via Apple Music and Spotify.

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Jamie Larson