The voice is deeper and sometimes frayed. The sentiments are darker, more full of dread, than ever before.
But there's only one Joni Mitchell, and the artistry of the 50-year-old Canadian folk poet is compelling on "Turbulent Indigo" (Reprise 9 45786), her first new album in three years.
A brooding 43-minute survey of contemporary America's ills from battered wives and intolerance to oil spills and injustice, it's no exaggeration to call the album a work of art.
To begin with, the trifold CD booklet showcases six of Mitchell's robustly impressionist paintings, including a swirling self-portrait in which she zanily injects her own face into Vincent Van Gogh's famous "Self-Portrait With Bandaged Head," which he painted in 1889 a month after he severed part of his ear.
The title song refers to one of the Dutch painter's favorite colors and to the hypocrisy of those who worship him but wouldn't let "the madman" anywhere near were he still alive.
Like the other nine songs, the arrangement has an acoustic simplicity with occasional enhancement from electronic keyboards and overdubbing. Mitchell sings, plays guitar, keyboards and percussion, with husband Larry Klein on bass and jazz great Wayne Shorter on soprano sax.
Although she maintains a home in British Columbia, the Alberta native has lived in Los Angeles for years and the relentless hedonism and egotism of that city is reflected in her most powerful song - "Sex Kills."
She was inspired to write it when she pulled up behind a Cadillac bearing the license plate "JUST ICE" and began thinking about the fractured meaning of justice in this country.
Is Justice just ice?
Governed by greed and lust?
Just the strong doing what they can
And the weak suffering what they must ...
The balance is undone - crazy ions -
You can feel it out in traffic;
Everyone hates everyone!
And the gas leaks,
And the oil spills,
And sex sells everything.
Like a musical Sylvia Plath, her poem for "Sunny Sunday" is brilliantly lugubrious, telling the story of a modern Blanche DuBois who pulls down the shades, tries to shoot out street lights and waits endlessly for night to fall again.
More angrily, "Not to Blame" condemns the multitudes of wife-bashers across the country - and apparently makes reference to accusations that pop star Jackson Browne beat former girlfriend Daryl Hannah.
Musically, Mitchell breaks no new ground. The short repeated phrases, the shuffling open-stringed guitar riffs and occasional jazz inflections will remind fans of past efforts from "Blue" to "The Hissing of Summer Lawns," "Hejira" and "Night Ride Home."
But how good it is to have Joni back on target again.
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