There are only a handful of places where playing Joni Mitchell’s latest release would be appropriate. Unlike most of the Mitchell canon, these locations do not include dinner parties, campfires, Laurel Canyon or post-breakup ice cream socials for one. Instead, the 10 tracks which make up “Shine,” released on Starbucks’ Hear Music label, are best suited for tacky jazz lounges, Muzaked elevators and couples-only Caribbean cruises.
For loyal Mitchell fans, listening to “Shine” may incite heated reactions, similar to those prompted by Bob Dylan’s 1965 Newport Folk Festival performance. Like that fateful set, there is something discomfiting about the electronics that riddle this album. Yes, the Dylan comparison is an unnecessary overstatement, but there is definitely a plastic element to Mitchell’s once undeniably organic sound. All instrumentation has been squeezed through a distorting electronic mechanism, transforming piano into a faux Blue Hawaii drawl and horns into little more than a nasal drip. Throw in the occasional maraca or ukulele and there you have it — the too suave, too processed Joni Mitchell of 2007.
The album opens with a guarded jazz piano too fearful to explore beyond simple chords. Its timidity is soon taken over by a yawning, whining saxophone, and it’s impossible not to wonder where the old Joni went. The accurately titled “One Week Last Summer” was the result of Mitchell’s first return to the piano in 10 years, so one would expect the notes to carry the weight and color of 10 years of marinating and brewing and buzzing, adding experience and personality to a genre she so often successfully experimented with (for instance, the entirety of “Court and Spark”). But instead of this dynamism, Mitchell delivers banal, Hallmark jazz.
Another major pitfall, “Hana” features a noncommittal Mitchell nearly drowned out by a swell of either pure electronic noise or, even worse, percussion sifted through a computer. The latter produces sounds that add little to the texture of the music, but instead beef up the quantity, rather than quality, of the music. There are wiggling sax, scattered drum beats, clopping bass and farting guitar — not quality.
Perhaps Mitchell turned to loaded instrumentation this time around to make up for the changes in her vocal register. Whereas once her flawless alto could both climb toward a dreamy falsetto and burrow a lustful groan, making the need for any back-up (save for a simple piano or occasional saxophone) virtually obsolete, she now seems to be quite content nestled near the bottom of the canyon. Possibly the result of smoker’s lung, her voice is constricted on “Shine” — the almost monotonous timbre wipes out all signs of exultation, melancholy and whimsy. Everything that once made Mitchell’s music so beautiful, so sensual, so cool has disappeared.
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Joni Mitchell sang of adolescence, aging and activism; her words surged with excitement and possibility. But all of this youthful energy seems to have subsided with age — “Shine” presents a Mitchell who still desires change but offers few ways to accomplish it. On the aforementioned “Hana,” Mitchell tells of a girl who “rolls up her sleeves/ and starts pitchin’ in,” but this sense of altruistic involvement does not set the tone for the rest of the album. “Here come the toxic spills/ Miners poking all around/ When this place looks like a moonscape/ Don’t say I didn’t warn ya” she sings on “This Place,” and “All I hear are crows in flight/ Singing might is right/ Might is right!” on the languid “Strong and Wrong.”
Lodged about halfway through the album is Mitchell covering Mitchell. Now, it’s one thing for an artist (say, the Counting Crows) to bastardize another’s work — if that’s how they see it, so be it. But when an artist rerecords her own hit and ruins it in the process, the listener can have only so much pity. On “Big Yellow Taxi [2007 Version]” (yes, the brackets are included in the song title), Mitchell supplants the carefree percussion of the original with meditative, lumbering horns. Lamentably, it is this lethargy that serves as a popular refrain throughout “Shine,” and after looking at Mitchell from both sides now, it’s clear why her earlier works prevail.