Label: Hear Music
Sound/Style: sparsely appointed jazz-pop with weighty lyrics
If the name Joni Mitchell still evokes images of late '60s folk music, it isn't because the singer/songwriter herself is mired in that mindset, but because her early work is some of the most enduring to come from that era. For years now, Mitchell's increasingly hard-hitting and disturbing assessment of modern culture has led critics to conclude that she's no longer the heart-on-sleeve poet of yore. While that may be the case, her work has changed because her independent artistic spirit has not. On her recently released Shine, her outrage at the prioritizing of political power and creature comforts over social and environmental health recalls older songs like "Big Yellow Taxi," which she knowingly reprises here in a slightly updated and quirky samba. The main difference is that today, in her mid-60s, the artist chooses not to mince words as she sends up distress flares to a world that often regards such messengers as kin to Chicken Little. ("It's so out of hand - big bombs and barbed wire/ Can't you see our destiny?/ We're making this Earth our funeral pyre!")
When she addresses the chaos of consumer culture and the undeniable dearth of natural resources - signified by the real-life bear rummaging through her garbage cans on "This Place" - Mitchell speaks truth, like it or not. If her description of "cellphone zombies babbling through the shopping malls" seems harsh on "Bad Dreams," note that the somber, jazz-flavored song is more lament than protest. Mitchell, clearly pained by the bigger picture, seems dumbfounded at the apathy and self-absorption of mainstream America as she surveys the ravaged remains of "wild Eden Earth": "We live in these electric scabs/ These lesions once were lakes/ No one knows how to shoulder the blame/ Or learn from past mistakes/ So who will come to save the day?"
Mitchell's take on spirituality appears conflicted. For example, she acknowledges the Genesis story in the line "before that altering apple, we were one with everything" and goes on to mourn our separation from the Creator, but debunks the concepts of heaven and hell as "ancient tales." Mitchell's work has previously displayed her distrust of traditional religious systems; yet she's captivated with spiritual imagery, even if her expressions of it can border on the heretical. The title character in "Hana" is a hands-on helper to the needy who scoffs at the notion of waiting for supernatural solutions or even assistance: "Straighten your back/ Dig in your heels/ And get a good grip on your grief!/ Hana says 'Don't get me wrong/ This is no simple Sunday song/ Where God or Jesus comes along/ And they save ya.'/ You've got to be braver than that/ You tackle the beast alone."
On "Strong and Wrong," she is indignant at the notion of God as a talisman or, even worse, a self-serving justification in times of war: "What is God's will?/ Onward Christian soldiers...Or thou shall not kill...?/ Men love war!/ Is that what God is for?/ Just a rabbit's foot?/ Just a lucky paw...?"
While the album is a serious and weighty work, it ironically happens to be one of Mitchell's warmest and most organic-sounding releases in years, centered on the artist's own piano work and enhanced by percussion, steel guitar and a flittering saxophone. Electronic keyboards are still present, but they're employed creatively and intuitively by Mitchell herself to create orchestral effects that underscore the lyrical intent. The subdued and airy tonal colors actually make the medicinal message go down easier. Even the deepening of the singer's now-nicotine-scarred voice seems appropriate - the absence of her once-fluid soprano range lends her vocals a wizened, maternal quality ideal for her subject matter. Despite her claim of detachment on "If I Had a Heart," the heart of a poet still beats, however dimmed by disappointment, on Shine.