Joni Mitchell has never danced to the music industry's drum machine, and on Shine (Hear Music), her first album of new material in nine years due out Tuesday, she is once again blissfully out of step.
Shine is a frequently lovely-sounding meditation on the ugliness of the world. She's in a deceptively relaxed, jazz-flavored mood, the purring arrangements belying the often-strident lyrics. Mitchell identifies greed, ego, war and religion as the ingredients in a toxic cocktail that's slowly killing a beautiful planet. There's no news there, and not much poetry. What's surprising is that a lyricist as astute as Mitchell feels the need to reiterate that big money kicks the wide, wide world around and men love war, that's what history is for.
But when Mitchell avoids finger-pointing, her wordplay retains its intoxicating allure. She compresses Tennessee Williams' play Night of the Iguana into a series of pungent verses. With a few quick turns -- the kid in the see-through blouse & moving in hard on his holy vows --- Mitchell lays out a story of tragic temptation with graceful economy and sly wit. If turns a Rudyard Kipling poem of soldierly resolve into an earth mother's statement of fortitude. And without words to interfere, Mitchell unfurls one of her most plangent melodies on the instrumental track One Week Last Summer.
These songs are reminders of why Mitchell has remained relevant for 40 years, no matter what the pop charts say. Once a star herself in the star-maker machinery she recently called a cesspool, Mitchell is a figure revered by artists ranging from Janet Jackson to Neil Young. This year alone has seen the release of two albums devoted to her music by a cross-generational array of singers and musicians. Last spring, A Tribute to Joni Mitchell (Nonesuch) found Prince, Bjork, Sufjan Stevens, Caetano Veloso and k.d. lang, among others, trying to adapt to the odd contours of her songs. And River: The Joni Letters (Verve), due in stores Tuesday, lets a formidable jazz quintet led by Mitchell cronies Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter go to town on her compositions, with Norah Jones, Tina Turner and Mitchell herself guesting on vocals.
These releases affirm how utterly unique Mitchell is. She's a songwriter whose sense of harmonics and phrasing is as sophisticated as a jazz musician's, yet she's had her share of pop hits. One of the most famous, Big Yellow Taxi, appears on Shine in slightly re-arranged form: be-bop with accordion, rather than the chirping folk of the original. It's an ecological protest song similar to many of those on Shine, but it's wittier, lighter on its feet. The mood is deceptively buoyant, the sarcasm darkly comical, the message heavy but never heavy-handed. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot. That says it all, doesn't it?
Now 63, Mitchell might feel like she's running out of time to get her point across. You take with such entitlement/You give bad attitude/You have no grace/No empathy/No gratitude, she scolds on Bad Dreams. Too much of Shine translates its anger into a list of complaints, and Mitchell comes off as a crank, not a poet.
The music takes the opposite tack. Her voice constricted by years of nicotine abuse, Mitchell makes the most of what she's got left of her multi-octave range. She takes a conversational approach while sliding around the notes with an unhurried air, and the music drifts languidly with her. In patiently unwrapping these melodies, Mitchell trusts her fans to stick with her. It's too bad she felt the need to bludgeon them with some of her lyrics.
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