"Night Ride Home," Joni Mitchell. Geffen
On her 16th album, Joni Mitchell shuns much of the high-tech production she embraced on her past two recordings. With Mitchell playing more guitar than keyboard, and with husband Larry Klein playing bass in a style that recalls Jaco Pastorius, the album sounds somewhat like 1976's "Hejira."
Some reviews are calling "Night Ride Home" a return to top form for Mitchell, but that's a little much. Some '70s efforts like "Blue," "Court and Spark" and "Hejira" are hard to top.
Since then, Mitchell's voice has lost some of its range and sweetness. What's more, she no longer musters endless, effortless musical and lyrical invention. Rather than pushing boundaries, "Night Ride Home" reprises some of her earlier musical and verbal themes. But if Mitchell can no longer surpass herself, she still beats most of the current pop pack.
Accompanied by what sounds like electronically sampled crickets, the album's unassuming title track tells of a woman and the man she loves returning home one night. But the "Night Ride Home" title also speaks to the album's preoccupation with Mitchell's youth in Saskatchewan, Canada.
One of the album's highlights is a swing tune called "Ray's Dad's Cadillac." The teenage narrator coos about her romance with the son of the math teacher out by the blue lights on the airport road, and small-town life in the '50s comes alive.
Just as vivid but bleaker, "Cherokee Louise" tells of an Indian child who runs away from abusive parents.
"Night Ride Home's" darkest moment comes in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem." Based on a W.B. Yeats poem, this compelling, unsettling tune evokes the re-awakening of the Biblical leviathan.
A few other bleak songs don't do as much for me. I'm not sure what Mitchell is going on about in "Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free)" or "The Windfall (Everything for Nothing.)"
On the sweet side, "The Only Joy in Town" tells of a free-spirited lady-killer in Rome. Make that bittersweet. "In my youth I would have followed him/All through this terra-cotta town," sings the 47-year-old Mitchell. The song brings to mind tunes like "Carey" and "California," in which a much-younger narrator romanced her way across Europe. And it sums up the generally engaging, clear-eyed backward glance of "Night Ride Home."
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