Joni Mitchell’s ‘Shine’ Is More Timely And Apt Than Ever

A half-decade after Travelogue, Joni Mitchell felt compelled to return to music, prompted by concerns about the war-torn, polluted state of the world.

by Charles Donovan
April 7, 2020

Shine (2007) was Joni Mitchell's self-produced one-off for Starbucks' Hear Music label. At the time, it was busily signing up her peers, from Paul McCartney to Carly Simon, and pretty much letting them get on with it, although in the case of Carly Simon, the union was ill-fated, ending in acrimony and litigation. It was Mitchell's first album of original songs in nine years. Following two special projects - 2000's excellent, mainly pre-rock covers collection Both Sides Now and 2002's ambitious double album Travelogue, which reworked over 20 of her songs for a 70-piece orchestra - Mitchell had turned her back on the music industry.

The signs had been there for a while. The coruscating "Lead Balloon", from 1998's Taming the Tiger, revealed in its full toxic majesty her contempt for the sleaze, dishonesty, and talentlessness she felt had come to characterize popular music. As early as 1985's Dog Eat Dog, Mitchell's songs had laid into the corrupted ethics of big business, advertising, television, and entertainment. Mitchell spent 2002 to 2007 compiling unusual anthologies of her work (The Beginning of Survival, Songs of a Prairie Girl) and occasionally giving interviews in which she made no secret of her dislike for the people in charge of the music industry who, she memorably said, had no cultural interests beyond "golf and porno".

A half-decade after Travelogue, Mitchell felt compelled to return to music, prompted by concerns about the war-torn, polluted state of the world. Shine was the result, and it did remarkably well, securing her a higher American chart position (#14) than her '80s and '90s work had achieved, restoring her to the UK Top 40 and appearing on an array of international charts. Now it's been remastered and issued on vinyl for the first time, coming out on the Craft Recordings label. Craft, part of the same company that owned the Hear Music label, has gradually been carving out a reputation that almost puts it on equal footing with audiophile companies like Mobile Fidelity and Analogue Productions. The presence of an engineer of the caliber of Bernie Grundman bodes well for the finished result. So does the fact that it's being pressed at RTI, one of the best vinyl plants still standing.

Of course, the acid test for any vinyl-only reissue is to hear the music in the original format of its release, which, at the time of going to press, I have not had the opportunity to do. It's an understandable hold-up given the international lockdown. Likewise, I'm unable to make any comment, flattering or otherwise, about the presentation or pressing quality. (Speaking of presentation, it seems extraordinary now to recall that the original CD was issued with a horizontal censorship band, 'protecting' us from the sight of dancers in figure-hugging tights).

That just leaves the music itself. Since Shine is, to date, the last Joni Mitchell album and a return to songwriting after a decade off, it's sometimes elevated to masterpiece status. But while it's sharper and more focused than Taming the Tiger (1998, Reprise), it doesn't have quite the impact of Mitchell's best '90s albums, Night Ride Home (1991, Geffen) and the deservedly Grammy-winning Turbulent Indigo (1994, Reprise). It was made with a minimal cast, including Mitchell's former husband, Larry Klein, on bass, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Bob Sheppard playing saxophone, and cameos from an old flame, James Taylor, and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa. Everything else, including production, fell to Mitchell.

It was generally well-received at the time, but how does Shine fare 13 years on? On the plus side, the prominence given to Mitchell's piano playing is greater than on any of her albums since Court and Spark. Shine opens with "One Week Last Summer", an instrumental with pastoral qualities that immediately recalls Court and Spark's "Down to You". But after a bar or two of dreamy, whimsical piano, the problem intrudes. Instead of the gorgeous Tom Scott arrangement, you're anticipating, in comes a far less comely mix of real and simulated instruments, with Bob Shepard's saxophone battling it out against a blanket of sterile, keyboard-operated strings and synthesized woodwind instruments. Both now and at other points in the album, the faux flutes and ersatz oboes give the impression of menacing, cantankerous ducks, and geese. It's a bun-fight in an aviary. I'm not remotely anti-synth - think of the wonderful things Kate Bush and Stevie Wonder have done with them - but where they always reveal their limitations is when they're used to mimic real instruments. Without fail, the effect is New Age and antiseptic.

Joni's 'string' and 'woodwind' sections on Shine have an inner deadness that leaves one mourning Tom Scott. It's a pity, because "One Week Last Summer" has an undeniable beauty, but it's beauty smeared in garish makeup. Just as Taming the Tiger's "Man From Mars" became one of Mitchell's most gorgeous ballads in the less synth-heavy version featured on the Grace of My Heart soundtrack, so "One Week Last Summer" would have been far more effective without the tinny faux-chestra.

The good news is that the electronic instruments pretending to be acoustic ones are pretty much the album's only drawbacks. The songs themselves are consistently strong, and Mitchell's voice is all smoky gravitas and has wonderful, clear diction. "This Place" and the even better "If I Had a Heart" pick up on themes explored in Taming the Tiger's "No Apologies". While some may tire of Mitchell's Malthusian view of humanity ("too many people / too little land'), she makes her points with cutting, economical language.

In the case of "If I Had a Heart", the words are set to Mitchell's most touching music since "Man From Mars" and "Two Grey Rooms". Later in the running order, it is echoed by the similarly affecting "Bad Dreams". And on "Hana", the electronic elements begin working with Mitchell rather than against her, with a thrillingly skittish drum-machine pattern mingling with live percussion.

It makes sense that on an album focussing almost exclusively on ecological issues, Mitchell should return to 1970's "Big Yellow Taxi", her first UK hit single and proof, with its cautionary lines, of how ahead of the curve she was. Here, it's given a looser, more jazz-inflected arrangement, with acoustic guitar, accordion, and synth bass. It's as if Mitchell is saying, "See? I was right!" - a moment of triumph and vindication that one can hardly begrudge her.

What else stands out? Certainly, the bracing, grainy electric guitar, and intricate live drumming on "Night of the Iguana". And, without a doubt, "Strong and Wrong"; although it's another example of a piano intro being interrupted by the bogus orchestra, perhaps here the jarring synth-struments do serve the lyrics. "Strong and wrong you win - only because / That's the way it's always been / Men love war! / That's what history's for / History / A mass-murder mystery / His story."

While much of Shine finds Mitchell in a state of sad resignation about the impending apocalypse, for its stately, dreamlike title track, she summons some slender vestige of hope and guarded optimism. It's structured a bit like a bidding prayer. It asks for a clarifying, holy light to descend on every injustice and outrage, presumably in the hope that, once illuminated, they can be ended. "Oh, let your little light shine / Shine on rising oceans and evaporating seas / Shine on our Frankenstein technologies."

Mitchell's adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling poem, "If", brings Shine to a close. Listening to its cool, bluesy groove and graceful melody, with the electronic elements present but finally subdued, it's hard not to think, 'Yes! More of this, please!' It's much more in keeping with the sound of Turbulent Indigo. Of course, the awful kicker of the original "If" was that Kipling, after describing every conceivable attribute of character, from vigor to integrity to even-handedness to self-control to resilience, made it unequivocally clear in the final line that these were, without question, exclusively male traits. Mitchell dispenses with sexism.

Shine holds up very well. It may not top any magazine's list of best Joni Mitchell albums. But if, as looks likely, it is to be her final missive, then its songs, more sobering and thoughtful in light of COVID-19 than we could ever have imagined, make for a fitting goodbye and a last warning shot.

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