Joni Mitchell became a pop legend at least 20 years ago — the Greatest Female Singer-Songwriter of the Century, the Female Dylan, the Folkie So Hip That She Became a Jazz Musician. It’s all true, and it’s all puffery. More recently, in 1997, Mitchell was publicly reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption at 20 — an event followed quickly by her last album of new songs, 1998’s Tame the Tiger. Then, in 2002, Joni announced her retirement from music, an art she no longer loved, referring to the music industry as a “cesspool”.
Joni Mitchell is strong medicine.
Now, Mitchell has returned to music — and majestically. But she has done so on her own dark terms. Shine is a suite of thematically linked pop tone poems. Lyrically, many of these songs are gloomy meditations on our willful destruction of the environment, while others criticize our political leadership for other follies of pride and greed. Musically, these are mostly downbeat compositions in a mature style: oddball tunes decked on with long melodic lines; surprising harmonies with a jazz tang; quirky orchestration that features patches of orchestra synthesizer; pooled saxophones in harmony; and sudden bursts of vocal harmony that flash into your ear them disappear just as quickly.
Shine is not a pure pleasure to listen to, but why should it be? It intends to tell the world that it has been foolish and short sighted and is possibly doomed. And it aims to tell this story in music that chills you rather than sets you to dancing or swaying. This kind of thing is precisely what great artists do in their mature years. And, as Shine demonstrates almost against its will, Joni Mitchell remains a great artist.
The unlikely centerpiece of this new work is a piece of old work, updated. Mitchell’s jaunty “Big Yellow Taxi” from 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon is one of her most famous tunes, combining the political (“They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot”) with the personal (“I heard the screen door slam / A big yellow taxi took away my old man”) in a single sentiment (“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”). Smack in the middle of this collection, Mitchell reprises “Taxi” in a jittery new drum-less arrangement for guitar, saxophones, accordion, and synth. Where the original combined lighter-than-air singing with a jaunty rock groove, this version is brilliantly unsettling: almost a pseudo-zydeco, it sets up a vocal reading that is more personal and, actually, more humorous than the original. Alas, Mitchell’s point is all too clear — that she was ringing the environmental alarm 37 years ago, yet things only got worse.
If this tone seems a bit preachy, then perhaps it is. But Mitchell’s case is hardly flimsy. On “This Place”, Mitchell is direct: “When this place looks like a moonscape / Don’t say I didn’t warn you / Money money money / Money makes the trees come down / It makes mountains into molehills / Money kicks the wide, wide world around”. You want to disagree with Mitchell, but isn’t she just plain correct? And, musically, Mitchell matches the feeling, creating a song that lurches and stutters but never swings or rocks. It’s not the kind of record that sets you to feeling good.
“If I Had a Heart” is a classic Mitchell melody that can stand with her best work. Like much of the disc, it was composed on the piano, a compelling rhapsody of a melody that crosses beautiful chords as if it had been written long ago. The lyrics begin by lamenting how it “makes you feel so feeble” to see a world of suicide attacks justified by notions of heaven, then suggesting that people have “covered the Earth like a blight”. “How can we heal it?’ she asks. “If I had a heart / I’d cry” comes again and again, no accusation but a resignation that is integrated with an arrangement of astonishing beauty: bent tones on pedal steel, surges of flutes, and Mitchell’s cigarette-deepened alto.
“Bad Dreams Are Good” is similarly driven by a strong piano motion. Mitchell sees a world of beached whales and cell phones in which “you cannot be trusted / To even know you’re lying / … You have no sense of consequence / O, my head is in my hands / Bad dreams are good / In the great plan”. Talk about self-righteous and gloomy, as the guitars ring and the song plods forward without any rhythmic drive. Yet the song shifts with incredible power into a bridge that looks backward to a time of possibility that may not be so far past. The song is structured with Gershwin-level classicism but leavened with a different kind of poetry: “We live in these electric scans / These lesions once were lakes / No one knows how to shoulder the blame / Or learn from past mistakes.”
Without a single song that puts together a good rocking feel with a surging, consonant tune, Shine will surely be heard by many as flat and disappointing. But two songs do thump with angular power — “Hana” is driven by surges of distorted guitar, and soprano sax swirls from Bob Sheppard (standing in, it seems, for Wayne Shorter), and “Night of the Iguana” lets drummer Brian Blade play flamenco-ish polyrhythms beneath of a sexy lyric about a kid drawn to the darkness: “The night is so fragrant / These women so flagrant / They could make him a vagrant / With the flick of a shawl.” Sure, this song is followed by two angry songs (“Strong and Wrong”, a piano ballad about the “might is right” absurdity of the Iraq war, and the title track, which perverts the old folk song “This Little Light of Mine” to illuminate a world of environmental destruction and cell-phone drivers who pass you on the right) but the album ends with “If”, one of loveliest Joni songs of the last 20 years.
“If” does groove, putting a subtle Latin feel under Mitchell’s adaptation of the famous Rudyard Kipling poem. As the last song on a somber record, “If” holds a hand out to listeners: “If you can fill the journey / Of a minute / With sixty seconds worth of wonder and delight / Then The Earth is yours / And everything that’s in it / But more than that / I know you’ll be alright”. All of Joni’s slippery vocal genius finds its way into the track, as she bends notes and insinuates with her tone, then layers harmonies in ways that would make her old friend Charlie Mingus smile.
It may take a handful of listenings to reveal itself, but Shine is the most confident and majestic Joni Mitchell record at least since 1991’s Night Ride Home and maybe since the 1979 collaboration Mingus. She has shed her obsession with the odd synth-guitar that clattered up Tame the Tiger. Every ponderous couplet about the environment is matched with a clever reference to “crows in flight” (nodding to her own properly famous song “Black Crow”). The arrangements that lack drive are chamber creations of beauty, and at least “If I Had a Heart” and “If” are among the finest melodies Joni has ever conceived. In an era when artists are sometimes chastised for having opinions, Mitchell is not afraid to have them anyway — and to point out that older, less stridently-expressed views have been roundly ignored.
The late works of the jazz singer Billie Holiday were not a patch on her jubilant recordings from the 1930s — the 1950s found Lady Day scratchy of throat and without her dancing higher notes. Yet many people prefer those records. In them they hear maturity, the wisdom and the deft vocal moves of a singer with something heavy to say.
It’s fair to say that Joni Mitchell has now reached that point in her career. It is unlikely that any new Joni Mitchell album will thrill us with the lyrical beauty of Blue or the jazzed-out pop pleasures of Court and Spark. Skeptics or nostalgia-hawks have already noted that Joni’s voice is the victim of time and a billion cigarettes — another natural resource led to unnecessary ruin. But to reject work like Shine by way of comparison is itself a waste. It’s a weird record and a beautiful record and a record that tells some great stories, even if several of those stories are about a profound disappointment with this culture and this government. What — you’re not disappointed too?
I feel no disappointment, however, in learning that Joni Mitchell has returned to writing songs. Returning to past glories is not an option for a legend. Better to move forward on your own terms, as Joni has. Better to risk being too serious or risk reaching too far. May she keep it up for as long as her voice will carry her.