Sweet bird of time and change, you must be laughing. Quite a bit of time has passed since Joni Mitchell last picked up the guitar or sat at the piano and wrote a song--about ten years now--and she has changed. After her last album of new material, Taming the Tiger, which was composed in 1997 and released the next year, Mitchell participated with varying degrees of engagement in the making of six CDs or multi-disc packages: four compilations of tracks from her old recording catalog, organized by theme or by record label; one album of readings of Tin Pan Alley standards (mingled with two gems of her own that have joined the popular canon, "Both Sides Now" and "A Case of You"); and a double-CD set of remakes of her earlier work, done pre-rock style, with a symphony orchestra. Upon making the remakes, she announced that she would never record again, and she said that she had forgotten why she had ever loved music. Now Mitchell is back with nine new songs (and one more remake, this one a musical update, of "Big Yellow Taxi") on a stunning album called Shine, which is being marketed through Starbucks by the chain's powerhouse label, Hear Music. But the album stuns in more ways than one, and whatever laughter it has incited in that sweet bird of Mitchell's fancy could be of joy or decrial.
The news that Joni Mitchell is playing and writing again is surely cause to let out a hearty crow. One of the most serious and ambitious songwriters to make pop for adults in the rock era, Mitchell has earned the ardor of a worshipful following, whose members include other serious and ambitious musicians such as Björk, Elvis Costello, Prince, and Caetano Veloso. Her fans among performers respected for their edgy intelligence could, without any outside help, fulfill all the music programming needs of NPR. How her recent absence from performing and composing has affected her standing among the larger public is unclear, though it has no doubt diminished her name recognition at least as much as it has enhanced her mystique. By the pop-music calendar, ten years is forever--longer than the entire recording career of innumerable acts, including the Beatles, and longer than the life cycles of most pop-music trends, including the folk-rock craze of the 1960s, through which Roberta Joan Anderson turned herself into Joni Mitchell.
She has never liked being thought of as a folkie--or at least not liked it since she stopped being a folkie. In the early 1970s, when I was in high school, I saw Mitchell in concert for the first time. Touring to support Blue, her latest album, she did a brooding show, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, mountain dulcimer, and piano. (In a review for my school paper, I described Mitchell as an "aging princess of folk-rock music"--she was twenty-eight.) Before beginning "A Case of You" that evening, she explained how she had been inspired to play the Appalachian instrument by the dulcimer-strumming folkie poet Richard Farina. (The song itself is about Mitchell's affair with a superior folkie poet, Leonard Cohen.) Twenty years later, when I was doing some research on Farina, Mitchell and I chatted over smokes in the bar at the Blue Note, the jazz club in New York. Mitchell had come to see the drummer Brian Blade, though she could not see him at all and could not hear him very well from our spot near the exit, which was the only place in the club where she was allowed to smoke. "I was never a folksinger," she told me, emphatically. "I was always a jazz artist."
OK. But … what about the music on the first four Joni Mitchell albums--all those tunes in the folk vein, like "Michael From Mountains," "Song to a Seagull," and "Chelsea Morning"? They were not folk, Mitchell insisted; they were jazz. She told me to go home and listen to the songs again, paying special attention to the harmony. In her guitar accompaniment, she said, she had been playing "jazz chords."
That is true but incomplete information. There have always been strains of several kinds of music, including jazz, in Mitchell's guitar playing and in the writing that she has done on the instrument. She is an intuitive composer, indifferent to music theory and formal conventions. As such, she has a great deal of illustrious company among composers in folk, rock, and blues, though not so much company among jazz masters (notwithstanding the boggling Erroll Garner and a few lesser geniuses of the naive). Impatient and impulsive, Mitchell has employed a method of writing on the guitar that simplifies the work of composing while nicely complicating the results. She retunes the strings to make an open chord that has a sound she likes, in the manner of Delta blues players, and she produces variations and modulations with fairly simple fingering up and down the fretboard. This process has helped Mitchell create a songbook of instantly recognizable pieces united by their odd character of found harmony. In the songs that she has written at the piano, an instrument for which retuning the strings is prohibitively time-consuming, Mitchell's harmonic conception is more conventional, though still intuitive and occasionally suggestive of postwar Third Stream jazz for its moments of liquid, puddling chromaticism.
Liberated by her intuition but also limited by it, Mitchell could make jazz chords--the opening of "Jericho," for instance, shifts hiply from an F major ninth to a B minor seventh over E; but she struggled to compose fully wrought jazz compositions, and then, in the late 1970s, she dove headlong into jazz fusion with the albums Don Juan's Reckless Daughter and Mingus. (On the latter, Mitchell contributed two pieces of her own, in addition to her collaborations with Charles Mingus, who died before the recording was complete.) A defining trait of Mitchell's life and work is her insistence on not fitting in--not with other pop stars, nor with most others of her generation. In a culture in which every performer in music or politics poses as an outsider to get inside the centers of power and glory, Mitchell has always sought a place not just outside, on the same plane, but significantly above her competition and their audience. If the folkies were strumming G chords and hooting union bromides, Mitchell wanted to make artful stacked chords and murmur cryptic ruminations. If everyone was rocking out, Mitchell wanted to do jazz fusion. Anyone can do the alienated-artist act; only someone profoundly ambivalent about power and glory can so blithely ignore the risk of alienating the public.
When she found that she had hit a wall trying to do jazz, Mitchell changed direction and turned to synthesizers and electronics in another attempt--one born of Mitchell's tenacity, for certain, but also, it seemed, of some desperation--to stay ahead of her fellow baby-boomer pop artists and their public. Between 1982 and 1998, she made six albums of songs buried under manic, garish electronic noise. These recordings had fine moments, such as the exquisite "Love," based on Corinthians 1:13 ("Although I speak in tongues of men and angels I'm just sounding brass and tinkling cymbals without love," set to a gorgeous, purling melody), on Wild Things Run Fast (1982); "Two Grey Rooms," about her divided mind; and "Cherokee Louise," a dark memory play about a tortured childhood friend--the last two of which appeared on the exceptional Night Ride Home (1991). The latter album and its follow-up, Turbulent Indigo (1994), revealed Mitchell's delicate compositions through less cluttered electronics, and Mitchell recoiled, hiding in a fancy cage of studio gimmickry on the bloodless Taming the Tiger. A pattern had emerged: the weaker the songs, the weirder the synthesizer settings. "I have this need for originality," she explained to an interviewer. When she could not provide it, she synthesized it, conflating creativity with novelty.
Around the turn of the century, Mitchell signed with a new label, the temperately arty Nonesuch, and she decided to pause for a moment and reconsider what she had done, at her best, in the past. (The head of Nonesuch, Robert Hurwitz, is understood to have exerted considerable influence here.) With Nonesuch funding the mammoth undertaking, Mitchell re-recorded twenty-two of her most durable songs, from "The Dawntreader" (1968) through "Just Like This Train" (1974) and "Amelia" (1976) to "Borderline" (1994), with a seventy-piece orchestra and the jazz musicians Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter (old friends of Mitchell's who recently reconvened, along with guest singers such as Norah Jones and Tina Turner, to do another album of Mitchell covers, River--the most recent artifact of Hancock's own mounting struggle to balance pop and jazz, though that's another story).
The very idea of doing remakes was antithetical to Mitchell, as she once made clear to a concert audience after someone in the stands dared to call out a request for an old song. Drawing a contrast between the visual arts and the performing arts, Mitchell, who also paints, said, in a somewhat petulant lecture in 1974, preserved on her live album Miles of Aisles: "A painter does a painting, and he does a painting--that's it, you know. He's had the joy of creating it, and he hangs it on some wall. Somebody buys it, somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it, and it sits up in a loft somewhere till he dies. But … nobody ever says to him--nobody ever said to Van Gogh, 'Paint a Starry Night again, man!' You know, he painted it. That was it."
The album of remakes, Travelogue, turned out beautifully, in part because the orchestral settings reinforced the depth and the timelessness of Mitchell's finest music, and also because she sang the songs with affection and care, in a fragile, grandmotherly voice that betrayed the effects of age and chain-smoking. (Mitchell claims that the transformation of her voice from airy and bright to husky and low is the result of laryngeal disease, unrelated to her smoking.) For the first time in her life, Mitchell approached her work in the spirit of classicism, dispensing with the futurism. The act seemed a bittersweet valedictory, and after it she packed up her instruments.
What can we expect from her now, after a layoff of ten years? A return to her prime--another masterpiece like Blue or The Hissing of Summer Lawns? Of course not. Those albums were made many years ago by someone other than the woman Mitchell is, at sixty-three, today. No, the fair thing to hope for--and the greater achievement--would be an album that speaks with those early records' veracity of what it is like for that new person, the Joni Mitchell of 2007, to be living the life of a sixty-three-year-old today. After all, one of Mitchell's most important contributions to American popular music was her key role in making pop an outlet for deeply personal expression. She once recalled as an epiphany the first time she heard "Positively 4th Street," a venomous rant at an unnamed party who had betrayed Dylan somehow. "Oh my God," Mitchell said to herself, as she later recalled, "you can write about anything in songs!" Mitchell's own innovation was not to write about just anything--Paul McCartney had a corner on that--but to delve into her inner life and render those which are not things: inchoate hopes, sexual imaginings, nightmares, the impulses to love and to mother and to hurt.
With songs such as "Blue," "Woman of Heart and Mind," "Troubled Child," "Sweet Bird," "Hejira," and dozens more, Mitchell brought an almost psychotherapeutic candor and intimacy to the record bins. She internalized popular music and made it something personal, idiosyncratic--modernist. In Mitchell's songs, as in work of the high modernists as well as the modernists in lower quarters such as Furry Lewis and Charles Mingus, individual expression and its necessary structure had primacy, and accessibility was secondary at best. It is a testament to the beauty of Mitchell's voice, as well as to the charm of her tunes (when she chose to write charming tunes), that she kept getting record contracts for so many years. Unfortunately, self-examination and self-command could slip sometimes into self-absorption and self-indulgence, and her songs could be overlong, meandering, droning, and repetitious.
If only those were the sins of Mitchell's new CD. Shine is a lovely album, full of listenable music. Mitchell wrote most of the songs on the piano, as instrumentals, and later added lyrics. The music is warm and elegiac, for the most part--vaguely evocative of the Rachmaninoff that Roberta Joan Anderson loved as a girl. There are synthesizers--all played by Mitchell, who generated most of the music on the album (including some of the bass parts) on various keyboards; but they are programmed to sound like traditional instruments, and Mitchell employs them with taste.
The stunning puzzlement of the album is the near absence of its author in the words. Of the ten songs on Shine, one, "If," is adapted from the Rudyard Kipling verse, and another, as I mentioned, is a remake of "Big Yellow Taxi," one of Mitchell's most tuneful and least personal songs. The eight new pieces with words and music by Mitchell are nearly all outward-looking considerations of political and social issues such as over-development and the exploitation of natural resources ("This Place"), over-population ("If I Had a Heart"), pollution ("Bad Dreams"), militarization and war ("Strong and Wrong"), and all of the above ("Shine"). In its lyrics, which frequently fight the gentle music, Shine is, on the whole, polemical, utterly predictable in its hippie utopianism, shrill, and cold.
In a late-life fit of nostalgia, Mitchell has gone all the way back to the liberal pamphleteering that she never liked in the 1960s and that Dylan, with "Positively 4th Street," led her to reject. She wags her finger and pokes it in the chests of the big bad boys, but she never touches herself to risk breaking her own skin. Indeed, she professes on the album to have no heart anymore. I find this impossible to accept. If Mitchell has indeed lost the ability--or the will--to reveal herself, that is a major loss to her art, to its audience, and, I suspect, to its creator. Shine is a kind of revelation, but of the saddest kind, and it proves, definitively, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone.