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The return of the canyon lady
on 3 October 2007
A while back, Joni Mitchell announced her retirement. She'd found and become reconciled with the long-lost daughter she'd given up for adoption in the 60s, and had no more need to run the gauntlet of a corrupt music industry for the sake of writing songs. The composer of "Both Sides Now", "Woodstock" and "Hejira" fell silent.
However, her seclusion didn't last. As she told a recent interviewer, ""I tried to keep my legs crossed, but it didn't work." Enter an unlikely ally in the form of multinational coffee chain Starbucks, whose Hear Music label has recently tempted other ancient luminaries such as Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan into signing new album deals. The result is Shine, the delayed follow-up to 1998's "Taming the Tiger".
The album begins wordlessly. "One Week Last Summer" is an instrumental evocation of a numinous time when "the piano beckoned for the first time in ten years". But when the songs proper begin, Mitchell's words can still bite - "money makes the trees come down/it turns mountains into molehills".
There's little of the old romantic confessional in these songs of later life. Instead, she's decided to "put some time into ecology", as she hinted she might so long ago in 1976's "Song For Sharon". Like the wordless movie Koyaanasqatsi, "Shine" is a chronicle of a world out of balance: a world where technology threatens to vanquish nature, where "cellphone zombies babble through the shopping malls", where we are all but consumed in "the jaws of our machines". For Mitchell, we live on a planet we are slowly poisoning, and in "Bad Dreams" she expresses her deepening disgust in the vocabulary of a modern plague: "we live in these electric scabs, these lesions once were lakes". There's even a reworking of "Big Yellow Taxi", her 1970 warning against environmental catastrophe.
As always, her lyrics can read badly off the page but make sense in terms of a kind of musical conversation as soon as she scoops them up inside that voice. It's still the elastic instrument it always was, although its youthful purity has been roughened and aged by tobacco.
Her melodies are the strange and rambling things they always were, guided by her own individual logic: this time she's chosen to do all the arrangements herself, with just a little instrumental help from her friends - including ex-lovers James Taylor and Larry Klein. There's an endearingly eccentric (or is it ironic?) touch in her use of a drum machine which sounds as though it came out of the same technological ark as Atari and Space Invaders, but in her hands it somehow works. Such are mavericks.
Shine isn't perfection. "Night Of The Iguana"'s Latino jazz is a little too coffee-table and there are rambling moments elsewhere. High points include "Shine", the deeply compassionate title track, and "Strong and Wrong" - a wry, punning comment on conflicts such as Iraq. "Men love war/that's what history's for/a mass-murder mystery/his story"
All in all, though, this is a moving, subtle and clear-sighted piece of work. Mitchell remains thoroughly true to her past; still a lady of the canyon. If it takes the multinational coffee dollars of Starbucks to bring us integrity in these less than innocent days, well, then, so be it.