As far as hippies go, Joni Mitchell has got to be damn-near one of the brightest yet most ill-tempered ones. But you canâ€™t condemn her wayward hippie beginnings too much because, back when she hit the folk scene, being a hippie was actually somewhat subversive- a far cry from the lame, washed up clichÃ© it is today. Her worldly idealism has always been at war with her biting introspection, but sheâ€™s written an arsenal of amazing songs to cement her legend in both regards equally.
A new Joni Mitchell album is more than a little shocking given her vitriolic attitude towards the music industry (she â€œretiredâ€ in 2002 with a few parting, cantankerous epithets regarding music itself: â€œI hope it all goes down the crapperâ€). Shine is her first studio album in nine years, and itâ€™s being financed by Starbucksâ€™ Hear Music, of all companies. Mitchell has always been remiss that her music never achieved a level of fame and commercial notoriety that lesser artists, who have blatantly stolen from her over the years, have easily obtained. So, perhaps, her justification for selling out to Starbucks has roots there. Or, she simply doesnâ€™t discern between evil corporate entities. McDonaldâ€™s could put out her record at this point, and I doubt sheâ€™d blink so long as she did it her way.
Regardless, Shine is still a shocking comeback. If you stopped paying attention to Mitchellâ€™s recorded output in the early â€“to-mid 1990â€™s, then youâ€™d barely recognize her here. Her voice, which used to trill effortlessly through whooping elegiac runs, is diminished in range and now sounds husky and ragged. Chain-smoking for four decades certainly hasnâ€™t helped, but Mitchell herself blames it on childhood polio and vocal nodules. Whatever the case, it doesnâ€™t sound like the same woman.
Musically, however, Mitchellâ€™s songwriting prowess is in fine form. Her jazz-inflected folk-pop can be heartbreakingly sublime. Her odd chord structures and open tunings have always flavored her songs with an idiosyncratic quality that made her music distinctly her own, and Shine does well to adhere to her brand name. Itâ€™s just that late-career records so often sound like caricatures of the vital years, and Shine suffers somewhat from any aging artistâ€™s inevitable decline- a feeling of detached aloofness or self-imposed celebrity exile that covers the record like a pall.
There are moments when all is forgiven, however. The opening instrumental â€œOne Week Last Summerâ€ sets a contradictory mood of ominous calm- a sort of eye of the storm serenity that you know in the back of your mind can only be temporary. By â€œThis Placeâ€ itâ€™s obvious what has dragged Mitchell out of retirement. The typical celebrity causes filter through her lyrics: Global warming, war, greed, you name it. Mitchell has a few clever couplets, which serve as metaphorical finger-pointing, but none of it feels new or even essential.
Shine is almost as challenging a record as any sheâ€™s made post- Court and Spark, her defining masterpiece, and almost justifies returning to the â€œcesspoolâ€ that she herself once dubbed the music industry, but her stance on the doom and gloom of global catastrophe can only be taken but so seriously when the bile of â€œBig Yellow Taxiâ€ is updated shamelessly in such a corporate context: â€œTheyâ€™ve paved paradise/put up a parking lot.â€ Iâ€™m fully confident sheâ€™s aware of the hypocrisy.