Mitchell, at home and in homage
“Shine” (Hear Music)
* * * ½
“River: The Joni Letters” (Verve)
* * * ½
Joni Mitchell has often been described as elusive. This is partly because she has frequently retreated from the public eye, most recently taking a nine-year hiatus from writing music, which she’s now broken with the album “Shine,” to be released Tuesday on the Hear Music label. Mitchell has also always been somewhat dismissive of her rock-icon status, preferring to call herself a painter and turning toward jazz when the sound of the 1960s counterculture started to calcify.
But Mitchell’s elusiveness is, at its core, a musical thing: her songs are great not just for their erudite lyrics, daring compositional elements or Mitchell’s bravado performances but because of the way all those elements interact.
Think of Mitchell singing the phrase “O Canada” in “A Case of You,” her alto reaching toward the snow-capped peaks of her homeland, her tone suddenly anthem-like, yet containing a laugh. Why is that moment so memorable? It’s not one thing but every little choice she made.
This and not her confessional tendencies is why Mitchell’s music resonates so profoundly as a study of relationships. But it can make her greatness hard to grasp. If Dylan is her generation’s master lyricist, and Hendrix its great player, and Aretha its No. 1 singer, what is Joni? There’s no right title for this Jill of all trades.
Incongruously, Mitchell’s talent has become easier to grasp in the post-hip-hop era, because singer-songwriters raised to respect that genre’s collage art care equally about sound, words and style. And so Mitchell’s great year, which began in April with the excellent and star-studded Nonesuch Records release “A Tribute to Joni Mitchell,” continues with “Shine,” along with a ballet based on her work, an exhibition of her paintings in New York and an offering from an old friend, Herbie Hancock, whose “River: The Joni Letters,” also comes out Tuesday.
“River” and “Shine” are themselves best viewed as linked works, and not only because Hancock and Mitchell are old collaborative pals. The shifts Mitchell makes out of necessity on “Shine” reflect what Hancock and his band uncover, reworking old material, on “River.” Both albums leave a lot of room for considering the way words influence melody and instrumentation shapes song craft. Each is pretty enough to be savored simply but rewards time spent contemplating their subtle pleasures.
“Shine” has a purpose, stated through Mitchell’s lyrics; you could call it a protest record. In songs such as “This Place” and “If I Had a Heart,” she fumes about land developers and fundamentalist warriors desecrating “Holy Earth”; cellphones and pesticides bother her too. Her lyrics are, in turn, potent and somewhat clichÃ©d. The way Mitchell inhabits her protests takes them outside the norm; her singing is ruminative, even when her words sting, and her delicate arrangements, often centering on the graceful pedal steel of Greg Leisz, encourage contemplation, not marching in the streets.
In these songs, Mitchell stands fairly still, observing; the album’s ruling metaphor puts her at the piano in her country house as a bear rummages through the garbage outside. She doesn’t attempt the leaps and wandering melodies of her earlier work. Decades of committed smoking have changed her voice, and she makes an adventure of exploring her more limited range.
Some songs, like the droll, dreamy title track, have the feel of litanies; others are more up tempo, with the focus on Mitchell’s phrasing as it connects to Paolino Da Costa’s percussion or Brian Blade’s elegant drumming. “Shine” is being touted as a return to storytelling, and the songs are fairly compact and easy to follow. But they’re far less easy to track and more interesting to live with than the work of most pop bards.
Hancock has been living with Mitchell’s work since she invited him to play piano on her 1979 album, “Mingus.” That album showed Mitchell experimenting with new ways to use words; Hancock’s new tribute explores how her old words resonate when interpreted instrumentally and offers beautiful insight into her conversational artistry.
Among Hancock’s many collaborators on “River,” a longtime friend, tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, makes the biggest impact. Shorter’s horn becomes Mitchell’s other voice throughout, teasing out the hidden harmonies in her familiar tunes, playing around with the phrasing she invented and finding new ways in, even on the seemingly inalterable “Both Sides Now.” That song is transformed in a new arrangement that connects perfectly to the non-Mitchell compositions Hancock includes, Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” and Shorter’s “Nefertiti.”
There are singers on “River” -- Norah Jones, Tina Turner, Corinne Bailey Rae, Luciana Souza and Mitchell herself, redoing “The Tea Leaf Prophecy” -- and Leonard Cohen gives a warm poetic reading of “The Jungle Line.” But what’s most interesting on “River” is hearing the band communicate Mitchell’s meanings, beyond verbal bounds. At last, an interpreter really grasps the key to Mitchell’s genius -- the meanings she uncovers in making connections, as her words become music and her music makes plain sentences sing.