"When I thought life had some meaning/ Then I thought I had some choice.../ And I made some value judgements/ In a self-important voice," Mitchell sings in one of her new numbers, perhaps speaking for a burned-out generation of angry activists and cynics: "All we ever wanted was to come in from the cold."
Fans may well take this as an explanation-if not an apology-for the caustic, combative social commentary that characterized much of Mitchell's work over the last decade. But regardless of the intended allusion, the Mitchell of "Night Ride Home" is certainly a far sight more mellow than the agitated Mitchell of "Dog Eat Dog" and other '80s albums. She knows too much to ever again be the sweet lady of the canyon a counterculture adored, but this an agreeably peaceable, thawing out, characterized by hard-won warmth.
Not that the album is without its ominous touches-as in "The Windfall," a greed parable about divorce settlements, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," an adaptation of a chilling Yeats poem, and "Cherokee Louise," about a runaway molested child.
But it's indicative of Mitchell's sense of renewal that two songs written from the perspective of a juvenile, even while her sense of romanticism is most at work in other tracks that frankly acknowledge middle age:
Is this vulgar electricity
Is this the edifying fire...
Are you checking out your mojo
Or am I just fighting off getting old?
With only about four players per song, the album is as stripped-down as Mitchell has gotten in a while: lush, smooth sailing of the sort that Joni fans who've been away awhile will love to come back to. What they'll find is an artist who has continued to grow in surprising ways-as opposed to fighting off getting old.