Over the last few years, the successful comebacks of rock icons have become old hat. Dylan, McCartney, Simon and Waits are just a few that have showered us with unexpected brilliance. And when these career resurgences are positioned as anything more than a well-executed money grab, it seems a tad inauthentic. So when Joni Mitchell writes in the liner notes of her new album, "I stepped outside of my little house and stood barefoot on a rock&that night the piano beckoned for the first time in ten years," it sounds like total hogwash: She made the album because she's sick of living in a little house. Right?
Perhaps the biggest compliment you can give to Shine is that it makes you believe that a piano did actually beckon to its creator. While it lacks the versatility of recent gems by those aforementioned seniors, the album sounds like something that had to be made. Musically, Shine rarely registers louder than a whisper, but it has a sense of urgency to it that few artists can create, young or old.
Although Shine includes an updated version of Joni's signature folk anthem "Big Yellow Taxi," its moods and textures are closer to her softer, jazz-infused records of the mid- to late-1970s. Hooks give way to subtlety, and melodies succumb to atmospheres. She's mainly a piano player here; almost every tune is anchored by her warm, balladic chord structures. And yes, her voice is not what it once was, but she has embraced her huskier tone to the great benefit of these songs. Their narrators are not exuberant, wide-eyed youths, but older folks wondering what the hell happened to the world.
These rich sonic backdrops set the stage for some of the most stunning, volatile statements of Joni's career. "Holy Earth/How can we heal you?/We cover you like a blight," she sings, on "If I Had A Heart." "Bad Dreams" lambastes the "out of sight out of mind" mentality we have towards environmental and political atrocities. "Big Yellow Taxi (2007)" is less adorable and even more sarcastic than the original, its catchy accordion riff notwithstanding. But as starkly depressing as Shine tends to be, there's a reason for its title. Where Mitchell's piano sounds like the voice of a somber realist, alto sax player Bob Sheppard symbolizes an undercurrent of hope. He lends beautiful, birdcall accents to "Hana," "This Place" and the instrumental opening cut "One Week Last Summer."
At the end of the day, Mitchell has faith not in mankind or God, but in nature herself. When she sings, "Spirit of the water/Give us all the courage and the grace/To make genius of this tragedy unfolding/The genius to save this place," she's not trying to single-handedly stop global warming or save a pile of sea turtles. She's merely answering the call of that beckoning instrument. Leonardo DiCaprio's charity work may get him spreads in Vanity Fair, but the only way an artist ever makes a difference is by creating art. Joni Mitchell has created a gentle heart song to Mother Nature and a fiery condemnation of war, greed and our willful ignorance of both. Shine is the sound of a master songwriter's righteous indignation, and, Christ, is it beautiful.