Shine, recorded and released in 2007, is the sign from the heavens that Joni Mitchell has come out of retirement. She left in the early part of the century, railing against a music industry that only cared about "golf and rappers," accusing it of virtually every artistic crime under the sun. So the irony that she signed to Hear Music, Starbucks' music imprint, is pronounced. The company has been embroiled in controversy over its labor and trade practices, and has been accused of union-busting and spying on its employees and union members. It's especially ironic given the nature of the music on this set, which is political, environmental, and social in its commentary. Hear Music has also issued recordings by Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan, so she's in great company. But it's music that we're after here, and Mitchell doesn't disappoint on this score. She doesn't have the same reach vocally that she used to. A lifetime of cigarette smoking will do that to you. But given the deeply reflective and uncomfortably contemplative nature of some of these songs, it hardly matters. Mitchell produced this set herself, and with the exception of guest performances -- saxophones by Bob Sheppard, steel guitar by Greg Leisz, some drum spots by Brian Blade, and bass by Larry Klein, all selectively featured -- Mitchell plays piano, guitar, and does all the other instrumentation and arrangements herself. The drum machine she uses is so antiquated that it's corny, but it's also charming in the way she employs it. The songs carry the same weight they always have. Her off-kilter acoustic guitar playing is as rhythmically complex as ever, and her commentary is biting, sardonic, and poetic.
The set begins with a five-minute instrumental that would be perfect to accompany the images of the ballet dancers on the cover. "This Place," where her acoustic guitar, a synth, and the pedal steel are kissed by Sheppard's soprano saxophone, follows it. It's a statement of place, and the knowledge that its natural beauty is heavenly, but will not remain that way: "You see those lovely hills/They won't be there for long/They're gonna tear 'em down/And sell 'em to California...when this place looks like a moonscape/Don't say I didn't warn ya." She ends it with a prayer for the "courage and the grace/To make genius of this tragedy/The genius to save this place." It's hardly the standard pontificating of rock stars. Thank God. The next tune, "If I Had a Heart," with Blade, Klein, and Leisz, offers this confession: "Holy war/Genocide/Suicide/Hate and cruelty...How can this be holy?/If I had a heart, I'd cry." It's the acceptance of the dehumanization of the culture as well as the increasing uninhabitability of the planet, this resignation that's so startling even as these melodies take you to the places in Mitchell's songwriting we've always loved. The massive drum loops, didgeridoo samples, and bass throbs -- with additional percussion by Paulinho da Costa -- is a story-song that is meant to be a backbone, hands dirty working and improving things. It's haunting, as it hovers inside its groove with startling electric guitar distortion and effects.
But only two songs later we move to "Big Yellow Taxi [2007 Version]." It's radically revisioned and reshaped. It's full of darker tones, soundscapes, an accordion sample, and a tougher acoustic guitar strum. What used to be a hummable if biting indictment of the powers that be, who wanted to develop every last inch of natural space, has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The exhortation to farmers is still there, but it's more a bitter reminder of the refrain. It's the only song here, and followed by the most beautiful cut on the entire set in "Night of the Iguana," a big, elegant, polyrhythmic allegory that features some of the greatest guitar playing Mitchell has ever done -- those leads actually sear, though she employs them as Brian Eno would. In this tune, the storyteller is at the height of her powers, examining the contradictions in being human in a morality tale. With her poetic powers at a peak, she sings, "The jasmine is so mercilessly sweet/Night of the iguana/Can you hear the castanets?/It's the widow and her lover boys/Down on the beach." She suspends all judgment of the protagonist. She merely lets it all come in and sort itself out. "Strong and Wrong" reasserts with Blade, Leisz, and Mitchell's beautifully articulate piano and warm, watery sonic textural backdrops, with her feminism coming through, expressing that the story of war is because men love it and that's what history is for: "a mass-murder mystery/His story." Right. Chrissie Hynde and Madonna may have trouble with Mitchell's old-school feminism, her politics, and her view, although she indicts not only men but all of us for "still worshipping/Our own ego."
Shine is an unsettling album, full of lean, articulate statements that are not meant to make you feel good. She doesn't have to finger-wag like Bono, who foolishly tries to use the power of guilt on the people he's playing with -- they've been at this game for far longer and seen it all -- or Thom Yorke's own contemptuous anguish that pleads as much as it professes. Mitchell doesn't have to do anything but lay it down in song, play the generalities and ambiguities as part and parcel of human existence as it has "evolved" and wandered off the path to paradise, through the seduction of power and money. She's an artist; it's her job to report what she sees. "Shine," a relatively simple, mantra-like song, is the other side of the coin and provides that glimmer of Beckett-ian hope we need more than she does, but it seems she's holding out for it, too. It's hunger. Musically it's imaginative, fresh, full of a more studied elegance and a leaner kind of pomp that we heard during her Geffen years (a period of her career that's still criminally underappreciated). In addition to her truly iconoclastic songwriting ability, she has proved herself to be a worthy producer of her own work. She's picked up tips from many others from Klein to Daniel Lanois to Jon Brion, and by employing excess at all the seemingly wrong moments, while stripping away the drama from her truly forceful lines and letting them hang out there nearly naked, she offers a view inside her music that we haven't heard before but still sounds familiar. Shine isn't a coffee-table record. It's an intuitive one; it won't attract record execs looking for the next fading star to resurrect. Mitchell doesn't need them, because there is little to resurrect in the life of a singular artist, especially this one. Her spirit is as unbowed, aesthetically curious, and restless as it has ever been -- thankfully.