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Joni Mitchell - Shine Print E-mail
Monday, 01 October 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    9
sound:    9
released:    2007
label:    Hear Music
reviewer:    K L Poore

ImageSometime, long ago, Joni Mitchell transcended any status she may have enjoyed as a pop music icon and became simply one of the most important artists of our lifetime. Those who adhere to this proposition usually say it took place when she teamed with Charles Mingus for the songs that eventually became Mingus (the album), but I believe it happened with Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. For me it seemed as if, with that release, she opened herself up like a painter, versus a musician, and began covering a broad canvas with words, sounds and a clear understanding of the human condition.

From that point on there was no way for any critic, or fan for that matter, to judge her work within the traditional music biz standards of hits, flops and lists. The standard for measuring her output became simply, “is it a major or minor work?” Shine is one of Joni Mitchell’s major works.

Artists create. It’s their reason for being. Inspired artists create inspired works. And that’s what we have in Shine. From the opening instrumental, “One Week Last Summer” (what other artist known for her voice and lyrics would open their first release in five years with an instrumental?) through the closer “If,” she uses us listeners like raw canvas, to explore her impressions of what it means to be alive in America today. Some of the songs are staggering in their unblinking, unfettered stare at the state of her soul (and in turn, ours), while others hold up a mirror to our collective consciousness.
The songs of Shine are gorgeous paintings in themselves. A strong rhythmic base is covered with atmospheric stabs of soprano sax and guitar, while being tied together by keys and one of the loveliest colors in nature’s palate, Joni’s voice. A triumvirate of these portraits are so stark in their rendering of us, society, that when I heard them for the first time I felt like Dorian Grey standing before his.

“If I Had a Heart” harkens back to the sound of “Paprika Plains” from Don Juan. A very stark piano walks us through a landscape peppered with processed pedal steel guitar and a methodical percussion line as Joni ruminates over our collective loss of humanity. It’s a song in first person, but in reality it is all of us singing. Opening with “Holy war, genocide/suicide, hate and cruelty/… how can this be holy?/If I had a heart I’d cry,” the lyrics quietly doing what Mitchell does best, exposing us as merely human. Our flaws are out in the open for all to see. The artist paints us for what we are, not what we wish to be.

“Strong and Wrong” has a strong Hejira feel to it, in its simplicity and strength. Joni allows her voice to carry this indictment of war, and of the lack of evolutionary growth in the hypocrites who choose to continue to force death upon us. “The dawn of man comes slow/thousands of years and here we are/still worshipping our own ego/Strong and Wrong!” As I listened to this the names Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush immediately popped into mind, but I quickly realized that although they may have spurred this creative outburst from Mitchell it really goes much deeper, and farther back, than that. It’s really about every leader who saw war and death as a means to more power and a way to satisfy a never-ending, greed-filled, need. What that need is changes from generation to generation, but it’s always there. Periodically we have to be reminded of this fact. “Men love war!” she sings, “is that what God is for?” And then you wonder if things will ever change. True, great, wonderful art sets you to thinking these crazy thoughts.

“Shine” is the masterpiece. Simple, likes a child’s sketch, and as devastating as a photograph taken of you when you first wake up, “Shine” is the earth, us, from the sun’s non-judgmental point of view. And although it isn’t judging us, what it is seeing can be judged. “Shine on science/with its tunnel vision/Shine on fertile farmland/buried under subdivisions.” After hearing this song the first time I played it five or six times in a row, because Joni’s voice soothed me like a mother’s song at bed time. I scanned the words again and again. The light is there not only to expose the ignorance and hypocrisy, but to allow us to grow. And then I considered that perhaps the song is about media and the light that they shine on people and circumstances, good and bad. It’s art, after all, and open to many interpretations.

The other songs of Shine are just as revealing (including her reimagining of “Big Yellow Taxi” as a kind of acoustic cajun sing-along) as the three I’ve singled out, it’s just that this trio affected me profoundly and reminded me how much I’ve missed Joni Mitchell’s music, or should I say, her art.

I imagine that in some way she feels terrible that it took the horrors of the past seven years to inspire her to create music again, but that’s the way of the great artists. They expose the truth while others look away. And our greatest artists open themselves up to allow us to see ourselves inside them. Joni Mitchell is one of our greatest artists. Shine is just another of her masterpieces.

Shine sounds beautiful, almost as gorgeous as the songs it holds. The piano sounds as natural as you’ll hear on a recording, and I’d love the opportunity to hear it in a higher resolution. The lower frequencies are masterfully recorded and bone stirring in their placement. The instrumentation is lush and Joni’s voice is warm, pure and sexy. The high end bursts through periodically but sometimes it seems there’s a bit too much compression. Shine is mixed to perfectly frame Joni’s voice and that, in turn, makes it close to perfect.

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