As its title implies, Night Ride Home is a notable return for Joni Mitchell. She has pulled back from the sequenced, synthesized sojourns of her two previous recordings (Dog Eat Dog and Chalkmarks in a Rainstorm), and gone back to a more acoustic, intimate sound. While the electronics of the past albums held some fascinating insights, it's wonderful to see Mitchell step back on her home turf.
Not that this is another Blue, by any means. As Mitchell has said in interviews, since she made that album already, there is no need to make it again. Instead, Night Ride Home showcases a masterful blend of traditional instruments and new technologies. Synthesizers don't appear until the third cut, and even then they hold only a supporting role. Studio wizardry is used to enhance instead of diffuse the music. Mitchell's rich guitar and her deepened, somewhat strained, but always remarkable voice holds center stage throughout.
Thematically, of course, her keen lyrics and rich chords have never strayed far from the mark. The title track is thick with imagery that draws you in with its deceptive simplicity. "Cherokee Louise" is an aching portrayal of a sexual abuse victim seen through he eyes of her 13-year-old best friend. "The Windfall (Everything for nothing)" slashes at the money-grubbers that must surround Mitchell with lines like "you'd eat your young alive/For a Jaguar in the drive." "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" powerfully builds on W.B. Yeats' famous poem. Her additions blend seamlessly with Yeats" words, and the driving percussion enhances the biting menace of the lyric. Mitchell takes a refreshing break from her weighty pondering on the nostalgic "Ray's Dad's Cadillac" and the Italian travelog of "the Only Joy in Town."
Another welcome return for Mitchell is her renewed focus on the intimate universe. Past efforts had show a deliberate social focus in a decidedly soap-box voice. here she returns to the idea that the most universal observations are the most personal. Though Mitchell assumes several other roles on this disc-such as the sad voyeur in "Two Grey Rooms" or the confused teenager in "Cherokee Louise"- her characters have a depth of self-disclosure that pulls you closer with each listen. Even the impending social anarchy of "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" is tempered with the feelings of the individual: "Hoping and hoping/As if by my weak faith/The spirit of this world/Would heal and rise."
Throughout the disc, Mitchell is supported by stellar musicians and sparkling, rich production. Husband Larry Klein provides lilting bass lines and solid co-production. The success of the disc is ensured by some remarkably sensitive percussion from Vinnie Colaiuta and Alex Acuna.
Night Ride Home is not a return to Joni Mitchell's past works. But in a sense, it is a return home. she has found a balance between outward social anger and intimate introspection, between the resonance of tradition and the shimmer of modern music technology. Home for her seems a place where things come together. On Night Ride Home, things come together beautifully.
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