Songs of beauty and outrage, songs of an artist in a war-torn world severed from nature, where fishermen's nets come up empty and children play in the proximity of falling bombs. A shock-and-awe world of macho militarism waged in the name of God. A world in which Joni, after nearly a decade of silence, returns with a somber, but non-sanctimonious masterpiece that balances dark sorrow with orchestral exultation.
Her capacity for lyrical expression has always been so sophisticated that some tend to overlook the miracle of her music. Yet she possesses a rich musical vocabulary of her own invention, consisting of complex chords, idiosyncratic syncopations, distinctive vocal harmonies, textural soundscapes and spacious melodies. The album, which begins with a stunning instrumental, is self-produced with an artist's sensibility, each soulful syncopation complemented by delicate dabs of paint tapestry drums, pedal steel, oboe, keyboard swells, distorted electric guitar leads, harmonica, stacked vocals harmonies and haunting soprano sax hovering in and around the edges.
Like Steely Dan and the kings of reggae, she understands the value of space in musiceschewing sustained chords that bleed over many measures to savor and mingle the colors in a delicate sonic dance. Her smoky vocals, confident and strong, etch the lyrics like charcoal on an eggshell. These are songs that require and reward repeated listenings, as she mines fresh melodic territories, liberating her tunes to twist and turn in unexpected directions. Her language is at once colloquial and complex, compacting observations with stunning economy, as when she depicts the sorrow of man's dystopian disengagement from nature and awareness by showing "the cell-phone zombies" who "babble through the shopping malls." In these songs, not unlike previous masterpieces such as "Hejira," "Just Like This Train" or"Chair In The Sky," the opening verses are so conceptually watertight that it seems impossible to expound on them further, and yet she does, expansively.
When she first sidestepped confessional songwriting years ago to investigate the world she saw, many decried this progression, hoping she'depeat Blue. But her songs have always been about her, about the experience of an artist in these times. And perhaps better than any songwriter of our era, she's a genius at zooming in and out of songs, presenting the big picture by showing the tiny, telling details. Her lyrics fly from fleeting concrete, examples to timelessly aerial views, always leavened with wistful humor, as in the title song, in which she constructs a counterpoint of "mass destruction in God's name" with the traffic jam tumult of "another asshole passing on the right." She stands within the world, yet far enough away to focus in it, contrasting the absent songbirds of the past with the present "strange birds of appetite" which have replaced them. There's nobody else who could write songs like these, and that she's still doing it - and bringing work of this depth to a marketplace that often celebrates the frivolous - is a reason to rejoice.
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