Joni Mitchell doesn't thank George W. Bush in the liner notes to her new album. But if it wasn't for the moral chaos that is Bush's legacy, it's unlikely the legendary songwriter would have been roused from retirement for her first album of new material in nine years.
Five years ago, Mitchell announced her retreat from the music industry. As she watched the world go to hell in a handbasket, however, the guitarist picked up her pointed pen and her long-neglected piano to write a scathing series of songs about the end of the world as we know it. Everything from holy wars to a scorched Earth to "cellphone zombies" feed into her frustration, with mixed results. Often, it sounds like Al Gore wrote these lyrics, rather than the subtle poet that Mitchell is at her best.
Unlike much of her work of the past two decades, Mitchell strips things down here to little more than guitar, piano, a rhythm section and some saxophones -- no layers of heavy synths, treated electric guitars or jazzy passages to muck everything up. It gives the work a greater gravitas, and her apocalyptic narratives are given plenty of room to breathe -- even if her reduced vocal range still shows the effects of years of smoking.
She throws a bone to old fans with a version of Big Yellow Taxi. While it fits right in thematically, its jaunty rhythm -- subdued as it is here -- is out of step with the other sombre tales of "mass murder mysteries."
Mitchell does betray some reserved optimism in the title track and the closing If, which is adopted from the Rudyard Kipling poem. But the mood of the album is best summed up with the embittered line: "If I had a heart, I'd cry."
Now how does that go down with your coffee?
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