Joni Mitchell is back after nine years, and she's on the attack. In the title track to her new album, "Shine," Mitchell takes a nice swipe at the Catholic Church by name.
"Shine on the Catholic Church/And the prisons that it owns," she sings. "Shine on all the Churches/that love less and less."
Mitchell was never one to mince words, but in her triumphant return on Starbucks' Hear Records, she doesn't give an inch.
In "Shine," she continues: "Shine on lousy leadership/Licensed to kill/Shine on dying soldiers/In patriotic pain/Shine on mass destruction/In some God's name!"
Mitchell's album will be something of a revelation to young people who might buy it at Starbucks when it's released Tuesday if they listen to it and read the lyrics.
Mitchell, the original singer-songwriter, presents herself in stark contrast to the dodo-brained warblers of this generation. She's cynical and doesn't mind expressing it.
In my favorite song, "Bad Dreams," she begins by painting a happy picture: "The cats are in the flower bed/A red hawk rides the sky/I guess I should be happy/Just to be alive..."
But then the other foot falls, and it's a doozy. When I first heard the next line, I actually laughed out loud. All I could think was, You tell 'em, Joni:
"But we have poisoned everything/And oblivious to it all/The cell phone zombies babble/Through the shopping malls"
And that's just for starters. She observes: "You cannot be trusted/Do you even know you're lying/It's dangerous to kid yourself/You go deaf and dumb and blind."
Mitchell plays nearly all the instruments on the album herself, and does all the singing. And while the lyrics are harsh indictments of modern culture, Mitchell serves them up with grace and style. Her jazz renderings and melodies are gorgeous, and she even manages to weave in hooks and choruses as she delivers the bad news.
This takes the bite out of what could have been stridency. A couple of listens, and songs like "Hana" and the clever "If I Had a Heart, I'd Cry" are hard to forget.
Mitchell joins Paul McCartney as the second Starbucks/Hear Music artist. How ironic: both albums will be getting plenty of Grammy nominations. They are each far superior to 99 percent of what's come out of the major record companies this year.
Like McCartney's "Memory Almost Full," "Shine" demands some concentration from the listener; most modern pop music does not. You're not sure where Mitchell is going, and the only way to find out is to stick around.
I interviewed Mitchell by phone many years ago for her "Night Ride Home" album. The interview was long, and I remember a discussion of coyotes in her woods.
During "Shine" I thought of her up late at night, burning cigarette ash about to fall in a clump on a table, cups of coffee everywhere (maybe it's Starbucks coffee now).
And there's Joni, re-interpreting Rudyard Kipling - someone almost no contemporary pop stars have heard of - into a reflection on her own career:
"If you can bear to hear/The truth you've spoken/Twisted and misconstrued/By some smug fool/Or watch your life's work/Torn apart and broken down/And still stoop to build again/With worn out tools."
She's back, and not a moment too soon.
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Added to Library on September 24, 2007. ( 5,030)
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