In 2002 when Joni Mitchell retired, she compared the music industry to a cesspool and herself to a slave. Time away conspicuously failed to mellow her. Talking to Rolling Stone this year, she compared her experiences being interviewed by VH1 to the torture of US soldiers in Vietnam.
Nonetheless, she returned. Older fans, of course, will know that we've been here before. As long ago as 1969, Mitchell said she'd had it with music, but a few months later Ladies of the Canyon appeared. One song from it, Big Yellow Taxi, even made her a proper pop star - so you might think it fitting that her first album of original material in nine years also features that song, restrummed and resung so that it sounds like the Police's Don't Stand so Close to Me, Marc Almond's Tainted Love and James's Sit Down all rolled into one pointless ball.
We could also dwell on the irony of singing about high street homogenisation when you've elected to sign to the new Hear Music label, owned by Starbucks. But there are nine other songs on Shine, starting with a sunblind, instrumental reverie entitled One Week Last Summer. Centre-stage is Mitchell sounding more comfortable on piano than guitar. The chords she picks out these days are resolved and reconciled - not, as she used to call them, "the chords of inquiry".
What that means for the listener is that, for the first time, Mitchell is cutting you some slack. She sounds like a careworn Chet Baker on If I Had a Heart, at peace with herself, if not the modern world. It no doubt helps that she has acquired a grandson, and one who makes the sort of pronouncements you'd sooner expect from Grasshopper in Kung Fu. "Bad dreams are good - in the great plan," he apparently commented during a family fight, prompting his grandma's sad new eco-requiem Bad Dreams are Good.
Pianos are one thing; synths another. Like Leonard Cohen, Mitchell hates her reputation as a Sixties folk totem, but nothing makes her sound like a reluctant relic of that era like the airbrushed, soporific soundscapes of Hana and This Place. Still, the title track, Shine, fares better, mainly because its Disneyfied arrangements are curdled by lines such as "Shine on dying soldiers/In patriotic pain/ Shine on mass destruction/In some God's name!"
Somewhere along the way, the foremost Lady of the Canyon assumed the guise of a world-weary, chainsmoking Gaia. And, actually, it suits her rather well.
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