Nine years have vanished since Joni Mitchell last issued a CD full of fresh songs. But listening to the ones contained here tips off what she might have been doing all this time: steaming.
"Shine" erupts with a Vesuvius-like blast of vitriol, aimed squarely at mankind for eviscerating the environment, murdering each other without mercy, trivializing our lives by endlessly talking on cell phones, and shopping ourselves into a stupor. She even nails her fellow man for the high crime of passing on the right.
Despite its beaming title, "Shine" aims to throw a light on every stupid mistake the species ever made. It's as much a curse as a CD.
Now for the beauty part: It's being distributed by Starbucks.
"Would you like some arsenic with your latte, ma'am?"
Of course, Joni has never flinched from handing us ruinous news. She has long pulled double duty as a modern Cassandra, echoing the legendary Greek goddess' Tourette's-like compulsion to blurt the ugly truth.
But if "Shine" gains points, and esteem, for its gravity and focus, it falls short on the poetry and melodic pull that would transform it from a screed to a revelation.
"Shine" certainly can't be called a major Mitchell work. She hasn't had one since 1994's towering "Turbulent Indigo." Verbally, it's too literal-minded. Vocally, too limited.
Over the years, the range of Joni's singing has become narrower. And she has lost a significant amount of expression along the way. Some damaged voices find extra emotion (see: Marianne Faithfull, Tom Waits, etc.). Sadly, that hasn't happened here.
Small wonder one of the album's highlights is an instrumental, the opening "One Week Last Summer." Its piano chords flick tersely, contrasting a contemplative sax. It glows with nature's touch.
Other instrumental bits also click. A new take on Joni's 1970 green warning, "Big Yellow Taxi," springs with ruddy guitar riffs. "Night of the Iguana" has an undulating kick.
Unfortunately, too much of the rest gurgles and meanders. The beats can be stodgy, the melodies underdefined. And Joni's lyrics - her Godlike gift - seldom find invigorating metaphors. She does make some nice, acrid alliterations, like speaking of our lakes turning to lesions. But anger has overshadowed her creativity.
To relieve the rancor, she shoehorned in bits of hope here and there. There's "Hana," her ode to a capable woman. And at one point, she prays for someone, somewhere to "make genius of this tragedy."
But this time one of the culture's great geniuses hasn't found that quality in herself. For those of us who worship her, that's the saddest pronouncement of all.