Heart Shine

2 10 2007

By Jill Ettinger

Joni Mitchell is credited with creating twenty-six completely original chord progressions, and has written songs in as many as fifty non-standard turnings, earning her accolades as one of the best guitar players of all time (and most definitely recognized as the greatest female guitarist in history). That’s a pretty amazing achievement for any musician, especially for one who considers it as only their secondary form of artistic expression – fine art being the first.  She’s explained her situation: while in art school she was “a painter derailed by circumstance.”

With an uncensored contempt for the music “business” Mitchell has teetered with obscurity. Her last record came out nine years ago, and though she continues to express herself through painting and photography, exhibitions of her work go up rarely, and pieces are never for sale.  She’s a voice for environmental issues and one against war, both obvious in all of her mediums.

Breaking her nine-year silence, Mitchell released Shine on the Starbucks Hear Music label on September 25th. Along with the release of a documentary on the Alberta Ballet Company’s “Fiddle and The Drum,”  based on her music (and which debuted at the Angelika Theater in New York City last week), she showed her latest series of anti-war photographs, “Green Flag Song,” at NoLita’s Openhouse. A listening room looping the new record enhanced the event, and the rare live appearance of Mitchell herself was like catching glimpses of a Queen.

The artwork is haunting. Chilling images doctored in green tone triptych stretched on canvas are like mirrors reflecting the war hidden deep in the dark spaces of the American psyche. What struck me as a startling and disturbing exhibition seemed to fall on blind eyes, as the packed event was filled with laughter, chatter and the sound of wine bottles uncorking.  Was no one looking at the walls?  Did anyone get the message? I became flustered with what seemed to be a disregard for the profound artwork and drifted back to find comfort in the listening room.

A long time fan of Ms. Mitchell’s music, Shine is simply one of her best recordings yet. Imagine Blue meets Taming The Tiger. The record is soft – weeping at times – bold and unapologetic. The title track is a stunning, timeless anthem she could have written at the peak of her career. Her smoky voice dances over lyrics that cut deep on tracks like “This Place”:

You see those lovely hills/they won’t be there for long/they’re gonna tear ‘em down/and sell them to California/here come the toxic spills/miners poking all around/when this place looks like a moonscape/don’t say I didn’t warn ya…

Her stylistic simplicity reveals its true complexity and overwhelming tenacity, like a mother’s embrace that can’t be refused and leaves you longing for more. The 1975 environmental alarm clock classic “Big Yellow Taxi,” retooled in an eerily appropriate version, reminds that “You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.” Indeed we still haven’t learned that lesson; it’s further explored in “If I Had a Heart,” “If,” “Strong and Wrong” and “Bad Dreams.” Mitchell leaves no stone unturned; the answers are there, we just have to keep looking. The process daunting, but nonetheless, I began to ponder things like, Are there really only less than fifteen thousand polar bears left? How many football field sized plots of rainforest are chopped down every day?  How many troops have we let die in the Middle East? Why is that again?

Towards the end of what became quite an introspective evening for me, I happened to be in the backroom where Joni was giving an interview. I tried not to listen, but couldn’t help overhear her gently scold the reporter. “You’re not hearing what I’m saying. Why should I continue taking with you if you’re not going to listen?” He looked snarky, cocky even. I’ve seen it before. I have no idea what he asked and it didn’t matter. He had answers that he was anticipating, and listened to her through a funnel of expectations. What I saw (as if I need any more) was proof of why we are a country – a species – in the crisis we now find ourselves in. The disease of self-involvement is contagious. If we’re not paying attention to the interactions, the messages that surround us, we will pay the price. The point to the reporter was the same one that’s undeniable in all of her work. It’s impossible not to hear the same message on Shine or see it in Green Flag Song. And this is why Joni Mitchell will forever be regarded as ahead of her time, because she continues to live and work from her heart, first and foremost.

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