Environmentally focused new record disappoints
f environmental crises are going to dominate our public discussion in this century—and it seems inevitable that they will—we’re going to need some good pop songs to help us sort out our feelings on the matter. So far, the track record hasn’t been reassuring. Most songs about the environment simply transfer platitudes from bumper stickers to the lyric sheet and attach them to hackneyed singalong melodies; they lack the evocative details and dramatic con?ict that engage us as listeners.
Even songwriters as good as Marvin Gaye (“Mercy Mercy Me [The Ecology]”) and Neil Young (“Be the Rain”) have been defeated by the challenge. There have been a handful of success stories—such as 10,000 Maniacs’ “Poison in the Well,” John Prine’s “Paradise,” Dave Alvin’s “Dry River” and Midnight Oil’s “Warakurna”—but the best model is still Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” from her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon.
Mitchell reprises this song on her new album Shine, in an arrangement that injects a push-and-pull rhythm sparked by short bursts of accordion, acoustic guitar and synth ricocheting off of one another. But it’s still the springing melody, the tongue-in-cheek satire and small details that delight. Because she can make us laugh at the new pink hotel and the tree museum, we lower our guard enough to feel the sting of “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Of the seven songs with new Mitchell lyrics on Shine (there’s also an instrumental and an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If”), ?ve directly address environmental problems.
But none of them is as good as “Big Yellow Taxi.” “If I Had a Heart,” “Bad Dreams” and “Strong and Wrong” toss around clichéd slogans and hollow generalities so carelessly that they never establish a believable scene, a coherent narrative or a strong emotion. Even if you mostly agree with Mitchell’s politics (and, for the record, I do), the stump-speech recitation of familiar charges-“too many people … too little land,” “big bombs and barbed wire,” “shopping malls,” “worshiping our own ego”—proves deadly dull. And the vagueness of the lyrics extends to the music, which meanders without a de?nite meter or melody, smothered by Mitchell’s inexplicable infatuation with 1980s synthesizer sounds.
More interesting are two tracks that take the form of environmental prayers. “This Place”—which contrasts the frolicking of crows, an eagle and a black bear in her backyard with the looming threat of miners turning mountains into moonscapes—appeals to the “Spirit of the water … to save this place.” And yet the prayer ultimately doesn’t work, because the amorphous music is underwhelming. More successful is the title track, which prays for the “light” to shine down on both the bad and the good—both “Wall Street and Vegas” and the “fresh-plowed sod,” both “lousy leadership” and “dying soldiers.” The light isn’t identified but seems to be both physical and metaphysical, having the power to expose the wicked and warm the virtuous.
Because most of the couplets begin with the words “shine on,” the song has a repeating structure that most of Mitchell’s recent songwriting has lacked, and this recurring pattern lends a much needed coherence and force to both her words and her music. The same thing happens on her adaptation of Kipling’s advice to a young man, where most of the lines begin “If you can...” “Night of the Iguana”—her rewrite of the Tennessee Williams play from the perspective of the lusty Mexican innkeeper—also benefits from the title’s constant repetition.
It’s no coincidence that these three numbers—all of which feature jazz drummer Brian Blade—boast a groove lacking on Mitchell’s other imitations of Weather Report and the Pat Metheny Group, especially when she tries to program her own bass and drum tracks. Admiring jazz is not the same thing as being able to play it.
Yes, we’re going to need some good pop songs about the environment in the coming years, and it’s reassuring to see the author of one of the best trying to come up with some new ones. Shine is erratic, but it points out both the dangers and promise of the mission. Pop songs can’t help us with the scientific or political truth of ecological crises; that’s the domain of hardcover books and documentary films. But if songwriters can avoid slogans and generalities, if they can focus on a specific corner of the broader canvas and translate that into a compelling story, confession or prayer, they can give us the emotional truth.