This is a nation that has lost the ability to be self-critical, and that makes a lie out of the freedoms.
- Joni Mitchell.
If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
--German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
We always figured that putting people before products just made good common sense.
Has there ever been a more unlikely trio? A singer-songwriter, a dead German philosopher and a coffee chain. Yet come the year come the allegiance. And it's a good thing.
First to the obvious link. Joni Mitchell has released an album, Shine, on Hear Music, the music label formed by the Starbucks coffee chain, as have Paul McCartney and James Taylor. Some chide her decision along the lines of "she's betrayed her artistic intentions, where's the purity of motive?" which given the nature of the use-them-up-and-spit-them-out popular music industry is laughable. From a business point of view, what could be better exposure than this? On September 25, Starbucks had an "intimate Lunch and Listen" from 11am to 2pm in its 6500 stores in the United States and Canada where Shine and her other work was played. For an artist who went into self-imposed musical exile nearly a decade ago it is a godsend method of delivery.
As to Nietzsche - the name, incidentally, Mitchell bestowed on her cat - the link is deeper and more profound. In fact, Mitchell is something of a defender of the man who is commonly viewed as mad. Unhinged purportedly, but still a maverick of the intellect. Mitchell and he have much in common, which means Mitchell has little in common with the industry in which her art is sourced. It's not even a love-hate relationship, just hate: she has described it as a cesspool and the people running it as venal. "The business had just worn me down to where I couldn't write and didn't want to write. There was no public recognition for my work and none at my record company," she has said..
Her most recent albums have been compilations or reworkings of previous songs. Shine is her first abum of original work since 1998's Taming the Tiger. Which is where Nietzsche's abyss opens. And in the manner of great art, where the artist finds the shine/glow/radiance to create. In Mitchell's case, it has been the clatter and clutter of her culture in particular, and the moral turpitude of world leaders generally, that has thrown a veil over her outlook. Rationally, to her the human race is doomed, irrationally she believes in miracles. In Shine she has brought the mix together on a canvas that enriches and inspires. It is a work of art beyond the paint by colours method.
Music starts out in a life as a stream, as time passes it spreads into a river and then flows into an ocean. In some people it stays on the surface, twisting and turning, perhaps drying up in paths, rising and falling, shallows and deep pools. In others, the river dives underground and burbles back to the top later. It carries in its currents the singer's or the player's spirit. And that is what you hear on Shine.
The album begins beguilingly with an instrumental inspired by the beauty of where Mitchell lives by a bay near Vancouver. She hadn't played piano or guitar for 10 years. It is wordless wonder at the earth and, by album's end, is remembered in a different light, as a pining for lost innocence.
The marriage of art and social conscience is if not in most cases a dismal failure, than a dismal science. Social conscience needs context of time and place. Art needs neither. Of course, there have been countless attempts to meet at the altar, but few eternal successes. Time and relevance tend to divorce the pair. It takes genius to grasp the particular and merge it, like an alchemist, into the universal. Picasso's Guernica, inspired by the Spanish Civil War, is one such example.
Genius is an overworked, tired word. But Mitchell has about her a genius of songcraft woven with threads of social and spiritual insight. W. H. Auden in his elegy to W.B. Yeats, wrote that poetry makes nothing happen. This may be true to the outer world, but within people it can make the cogs whirr, and though Mitchell is with Nietzsche on the worth of poets ("they muddy the waters so that they may appear deeper") her nature and vision is poetic. An irony is that New Yorker magazine has published one of her lyrics from Shine as a poem in a recent issue. On Shine, she remoulds Rudyard Kipling's If into a defiant stand for the individual. It is the last track and after what has gone before, her attempt at maintaining virtue in a corrupt world.
Mitchell is now in her mid-60s. Her hits came early in her career, when she was perceived as a doe-eyed, long-blonde haired naif. A sensitive, harmless soul. One of those hits was Big Yellow Taxi. "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." It is here reworked, with two minor changes, she adds the word "So" to the start of the song, and changes the entrance fee from "a buck and a half" to "an arm and a leg". Back then, "they" only paved paradise and put up a parking lot, now in other songs, Mitchell sings of holy war, genocide, suicide, hate and cruelty, "I guess I should be happy just to be alive, but we have poisoned everything." Eden destroyed. It's a theme Mitchell mentioned in Woodstock, "got to get back to the garden", but then she dreamt of bombers turning into butterflies. Well, that didn't happen.
Shine is lamentation and invocation of the heart. The title track is the cry in the wilderness. In the midst of turmoil, it is chant and incantation for the seed of hope to grow - despite all. The album is not musically adventurous, in the way of Hissing of Summer Lawns or Don Juan's Reckless Daughter. It is controlled, steady anger and the most socially and politically aware thing she has done. In a world of instant, gratuitous fame. It is nirvana. It shows that art can matter.