In its day, this 2007 album felt like a response to turbulent times. Revisiting the newly reissued LP, its songs feel untethered to any political moment: protest songs delivered as solemn premonitions.
In the summer of 2005, Joni Mitchell was at peace. She was 61 years old, three years into retirement, and leading a life that, in her words, consisted mostly of "being a granny and watching a lot of television." One particular day, she was sitting outside the Vancouver home where she wrote '70s masterpieces like For the Roses and Court and Spark. She watched the Pacific Ocean sprawl in the distance. Herons flew overhead; roses bloomed in the garden. When she came back inside, she sat at the piano and translated the view into a serene, sentimental melody. It was her first new composition in years. She wanted to call it "Gratitude."
She ended up going with "One Week Last Summer" and placing it as the opening track on 2007's Shine, her first collection of new songs in over a decade and her last album to date. At the time of release, it was largely perceived as a response to turbulent times: the Bush administration, the Iraq War, the deterioration of our planet. Revisiting it now upon its first vinyl release, its songs still feel urgent, but they also sound untethered to any political moment. "I did a lot of weeping for what's happening to the Earth when I was in my twenties," Mitchell said at the time. "I could see a lot of things coming." Even at its most hopeless, Shine observes chaos from a distance that feels centered and assured; these are protest songs delivered as solemn premonitions.
Recorded mostly alone with engineer Dan Marnien, Shine has its own distinct atmosphere. Mitchell's '80s work was defined by a busy, glossy pop sound that purposefully contrasted with her darker worldview, while her '90s albums returned her to the soft, sophisticated arrangements of her most celebrated era. With flourishes of MIDI orchestras and droning synth pads, peculiar jazz phrasings and muted horns, Shine feels akin to late-career work by her peers - somewhere between Leonard Cohen's synthetic hymnals and Van Morrison's smooth-jazz vision quests. Its most adventurous moment ("Hana") lurches and grinds to skittering percussion, while its ballads feature little more than her worn-out vocals and downcast piano playing. Often Mitchell uses textures from throughout her catalog like Ghosts of Christmas Past: "When this place looks like a moonscape," she sings over the acoustic coffeehouse strum of "This Place," "Don't say I didn't warn ya."
The themes that dominate this album are ones that Mitchell had turned to over and over throughout her catalog. To prove her point that these modern worries are nothing new, she includes a revamped rendition of her 1970 hit "Big Yellow Taxi," reorchestrating it with bursts of accordion and saxophone. Even if it's one of the less essential inclusions on the record, its placement showcases the consistency and self-contained philosophy of her songbook. It also draws attention to what's changed. Mitchell's voice on Shine is a fascinating instrument: a yellowed photograph, frayed and fading. On Both Sides Now and Travelogue, early-'00s albums that felt like epilogues, Mitchell was backed by an orchestra, revisiting old songs in elegant settings. On Shine, she's accompanied by sparse atmospheres that bring her strained, ghostly delivery into focus. This was by design: "I am closer to the singers I love," she explained. "I never imagined I'd be able to sing like Edith Piaf." It makes sense that she was thrilled by her transformation, by challenging expectations with each breath.
By the time Mitchell released Shine in the fall of 2007, she had completed two equally ambitious artistic projects: an exhibit of her recent, apocalyptic photography and a sprawling narrative dance piece with the Alberta Ballet Company. She had originally been asked to collaborate on a biographical show soundtracked by her hits. She said no: "I'm not interested in escapist entertainment when the planet is at red alert." She speaks to a similar desire in the album's title track, where, over the span of seven and a half minutes, she casts a light on all corners of the earth, calling out people by name and profession, forecasting great destruction and confusion ahead. At times it sounds like a list of grievances, her tone purposefully unpoetic. But the implied message is that it's not too late to turn around. "When the world becomes a massive mess with nobody at the helm," she said, "It's time for artists to make their mark." On Shine, Mitchell sings with wisdom and grace, sadness and compassion. Her mark is indelible.
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