Despite some painfully simplistic moments, Joni Mitchell's sombre anti-war album contains some fine work, says Neil Spencer
Back in the patchouli Sixties, Mitchell dreamt, in 'Woodstock', of 'bombers turning into butterflies', a sentiment widely ascribed, even then, to an excess of doe-eyed optimism.
Since then la Mitchell has proved herself far from doe-eyed. Acerbic confessionals of love won and lost and shrewd snapshots of self-serving personalities, all framed by smart jazz arrangements, have moved her public persona from prairie ingenue to sophisticate. Five years ago she announced her retirement from the 'cesspit' of the music industry to pursue painting.
Her return, she has said, was prompted by horror at the Iraq war, but despite the protest songs on Shine, there seem to be other forces at play. Earlier this year Mitchell worked with the Alberta Ballet, she has an art exhibition imminent, and this week her friend Herbie Hancock releases River: The Joni Letters, a tribute album featuring Norah Jones and Tina Turner among a cast that includes, uh, Joni herself.
Hancock's approach, his piano sparring with Wayne Shorter's sax, is not so far from that on Shine, though Mitchell keeps her arrangements notably minimal. That and her reduced vocal range - she's 64 with a lifetime of cigarettes behind her - helps cast an autumnal mood even without songs that are at best stoical and often despairing.
War and ecological blight are the twin evils that preoccupy Shine. Mountains are levelled, 'babbling cellphone zombies' crowd the malls, earth has become 'a funeral pyre'. On 'Strong and Wrong' Joni names the guilty party: 'Men love war, that's what history is for, his story...'
Mitchell's despondence may be understandable, but for a mistress of the muse, this is desperately simplistic stuff, as if she's just noticed that the bombers didn't turn into butterflies. A new version of 1970's 'Big Yellow Taxi', wisely kept close to her original, reminds us she's been here before - and how much more deftly.
It isn't all doom. The opening track, 'One Week Last Summer', is a joyous instrumental for a perfect North Pacific day. 'Night of the Iguana' distils Tennessee Williams's acclaimed play, and 'If' improbably recycles Rudyard Kipling's homage to the stiff upper lip.
Best is the title track, a roll call of compassion that embraces the darkness of 'Frankenstein technologies' and the hope of 'a safe place for kids to play/ bombs exploding half a mile away'. Both sombre and defiant, it's Mitchell at her finest.