CDs showcase the many moods of Joni Mitchell
October 4, 2007
Joni Mitchell has emerged for her first album of new songs in a decade – and she doesn’t like what she sees. The songs on “Shine” are filled with war-making men, greed and, in a remake of “Big Yellow Taxi” and elsewhere, a defiled environmental landscape.War and planetary disasters are practically givens for a sensitive songwriter these days. The issue raised in “Shine” is Mitchell’s stance toward this awfulness. Mitchell herself seems to have her own internal battle – to give in to cynicism or to keep on hoping and praying. “If I Had a Heart” seems to encapsulate the ambivalence: She ticks off the tragedies – holy war, big bombs, too many people – and concludes, “If I had a heart, I’d cry.” If.
“Bad Dreams” lists similar ills, then concludes that “Bad dreams are good in the great plan.” Why? Possibly because nightmarish visions prompt us to take action.The title of the album, Mitchell’s gentle voice, and the tender, piano-oriented setting she gives it argue that “Shine” is marked by the presence of her better angels. But it’s not clear they are winning. In the title song, Mitchell calls to the heavens to shine on all of us, good and bad. And among those she singles out for a touch of that holy light? “Another asshole passing on the right,” “the Catholic church and the prisons that it owns.” The album ends on another “if” – a setting of the Kipling poem, “If,” that counsels keeping your head and standing tall.In a captivating album, Mitchell has gone past identifying our myriad troubles to ask the next key question: How do you find hope in a hopeless world? She doesn’t give any indication that it’s easy.
Herbie Hancock is interested in a different Mitchell – less political, more melodic. His “River: The Joni Letters,” co-produced by Mitchell’s frequent collaborator, Larry Klein, is a resetting of Mitchell’s songs. There are vocalists galore here: Norah Jones on “Court and Spark,” Corinne Bailey Rae on “River,” Leonard Cohen on “The Jungle Line,” and Mitchell herself on a remake of “Tea Leaf Prophecy.” The surprise of the lot might be Tina Turner, who shows an uncommonly delicate touch on “Edith and the Kingpin.”Regardless of all the guest vocals, Hancock’s main job here is extracting the instrumental components and letting those speak louder than the singing. On the hit “Both Sides Now,” Hancock strips the lyrics out altogether, and he includes two instrumentals – Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” and Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” – not written by Mitchell, but known to be favorites of the songwriter.Hancock is inspired here, and even when the band, including saxophonist Shorter and bassist Dave Holland, takes the tunes far afield, there is left the fundamental Mitchell – something moody, poetic, restrained and unpredictable.
“River” is tribute No. 2 of this year to Mitchell. The magnificent “A Tribute to Joni Mitchell,” released in April, was a wider-ranging salute, featuring the likes of Prince, Elvis Costello, Sufjan Stevens and Björk. Taken together, the three albums create a portrait of Mitchell now, from all sides.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com