Joni Mitchell has long made her disgust for the music industry plain. For nearly a decade, she was content to mostly sit it out and express her creativity through her paintings and fine art and collaborations with a ballet company. Occasionally, she would venture into the recording studio for an album of standards or one of re-imaginings of her own vast catalog of classics.
With the release today of the beautiful yet angry "Shine," the incredibly influential and doggedly individual singer-songwriter is announcing that her musical muse has returned and that it admirably remains loyal only to Mitchell's own instincts.
Mitchell credits her return to her piano, guitar, and notepad to Starbucks. The company asked her to create a compilation for its series highlighting the influences of seminal musicians, and she was inspired to write again after listening once more to her heroes. "Shine" is the latest release on the Starbucks-affiliated label Hear Music, following Paul McCartney's "Memory Almost Full."
Mitchell has recruited an impeccable combo to augment her own elegant yet quirky piano and guitar work on 10 sumptuous compositions that meander pleasantly from smoky Latin-flavored jazz to folk both contemplative and electro.
Regrettably, her muse didn't pack as much lyrical inspiration in her care package. So while the music always beckons, the words sometimes repel.
Take, for instance, "This Place." One minute Mitchell is extolling the virtues of her heavenly natural surroundings with near tropical steel guitar and lilting piano lines adding to the dreamy sense of belonging. The next she complains that this idyllic environment will doubtlessly soon be sullied by toxic spills since "money makes the trees come down." And when that does happen, she reminds you, "don't say I didn't warn ya."
It's not that these doomy lyrics are simply a bummer or even that variations of her anger and sadness about the state of the world and the evil that men do - specifically men - repeat throughout the album. It's that whether she's complaining about the bloodshed in holy wars ("If I Had a Heart") or the poor traffic etiquette ("Shine") that has arisen in the wake of these newfangled cellphones, she only sometimes sounds like a poetic, righteous protester and more often sounds like a grumpy old scold wagging her finger and pining for the good old days.
Except, as the update of her own "Big Yellow Taxi" included here makes clear, she wants us to remember that she knew the good old days weren't so good, either. (The perfectly fine but unnecessary remake also invites unwelcome comparisons to the younger Mitchell's peerless soprano and unintentionally serves as an excellent anti-smoking campaign.)
There's something about her consistent lament about the encroachment of shopping malls that feels a little rich now that she records for a coffee chain whose outposts proliferate like weeds.
There are many bright spots amid the stern tongue lashings, however.
The exquisite instrumental that opens the album, "One Week Last Summer," is a perfect evocation of a pensive, hazy day. The love letter to one tough broad named "Hana" sizzles with a bop 'n' roll rhythm and a snaky sax line. And the steamy "Night of the Iguana" is Mitchell at her best, combining the linear narrative and the impressionist abstract.
On "Shine," Mitchell sometimes sounds like a beloved older relative, embittered and interesting but sometimes tough to listen to without feeling like you're being lectured.
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