Among singer-songwriters, Joni Mitchell has an unparalleled knack for depicting absence and loss. Even after a thousand hearings, her seminal 1971 album "Blue" has the power to evoke tingling, shudders and tears. Her new record, "Shine," recorded for the Starbucks-owned HearMusic and retailed exclusively at the coffee chain, touches on the same themes of longing and regret that characterize her best work. It's her first studio album in five years and one that blends together her many musical incarnations - folk singer, coy jazz chanteuse and flat-out torch singer.
Miss Mitchell"s scratchy, tobacco-inflected voice is a bit subdued here. It no longer soars with the abandon of youth, but her 63 years have brought some hard-won richness and depth to her singing. The orchestrations, too, show off a long and profound musical journey. Most of the songs are characteristically anchored with a memorable piano or guitar hook and incorporate a range of instruments and styles.
The opening track, "One Week Last Summer," is a jazz instrumental that blends an effervescent soprano sax and flute parts with a gorgeous deep and winding bassoon line that prevents it from drifting off into lite-jazz territory. As a stand-alone piece it is good but not remarkable, but it works very well as an overture to what follows.
Lyrically, much of "Shine" is concerned with environmental depredation. Typically, Miss Mitchell isn't given to broad political statements, but instead she writes about what she sees in front of her. On "This Place," she sings of her beloved California, "Sparkle on the ocean/Eagle at the top of a tree/Those crazy crows always making a commotion/This land is home to me." It's a breezy easy chair of a song, with a twanging steel guitar playing counterpoint to Miss Mitchell's trademark open-tune guitar.
She takes a more global view on "If I Had a Heart." The crisp syncopation, reminiscent of a samba beat, belies the dark, almost despondent lyrics as she sings, "There's just too many people now/And too little land/Too much rage and desire."
She reprises her classic 1970 song "Big Yellow Taxi," and it's hard to believe how little it has aged, both musically and thematically. The cautionary tale, conveyed with the memorable lyric, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot," sounds eerily prophetic. She retains the scratchy rhythmic acoustic guitar and overlays its halting beat with accordion and electric guitar.
The title track is a 7½-minute prayer that rambles a bit lyrically but is a wonderful, spare showcase for Miss Mitchell's most plaintive, unadorned singing. It pairs well with the closing track, "If," which incorporates the words of the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same title. The poem, a tired staple of commencement addresses and toasts, rings out with fresh meaning here. As a poet and artist whose work is the subject of much criticism and speculation, Miss Mitchell must have found special comfort in the words, "If you can bear to hear/The truth you've spoken/Twisted and misconstrued/By some smug fool/You'll be alright."