In her sixteenth album, "Night Ride Home," Joni Mitchell - pop's most obsessed and daring romantic - muses against the dying of the light. Call it the effect of middle age (she's forty-seven now), or simply the result of finding a mate - her bassist and co-producer, Larry Klein. But she's begun to settle down, relatively speaking, to make her peace with mortality and the result is the strongest recorded update on her life and times since 1976's underrated "Hejira."
Musically, "Night Ride Home" creates rich aural moods with a set of spare, gliding arrangements. The tracks are built, rhythmically, on Klein's understated bass patterns. Above them, Mitchell's acoustic guitar or piano eases the songs along. Occasionally a soprano sax (Wayne Shorter) or oboe (Mitchell herself) lifts the music further, but the only additional sounds come from moody tendrils of amplified guitar or synthesizer.
Lyrically, Mitchell seems these days to be looking both forward and backward, with a combination of contentment and regret. Her new songs, as you'd expect, are mainly about love. In Nothing Can Be Done, for example, she sings about love on the rocks: "Oh I am not old/I am told/But I am not young/Oh and nothing to be done." But while that air of desperation is familiar from earlier Mitchell albums, elsewhere she creates an image of quiet domesticity, as in the title track's description of a Fourth of July car ride with her lover.
Of course, Mitchell sings about other subjects as well. Come In from the Cold is an ambivalent take on the very notion of sex: "Is this just vulgar electricity/Is this the edifying fire? . . . Does your smile's covert complicity/debase as it admires?" Later there are songs about sexual abuse and religious liberation, and even a setting of William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming."
Still, the mood of the album is set by the relationship songs, in which the push-pull of passion never stays in balance for long. That almost autumnal feeling is reinforced by Mitchell's voice, sounding a little the worse for wear. The honeyed soprano is no longer quite so sweet; it's deeper, even a little hoarse. Mitchell still sings with the same gorgeous jazzy inflections, but the old ease is gone. When she sings about her past, present, and future - with sentiment and melancholy - her voice is further evidence of the passage of time. We have always heard that voice with wonder, but now, in this remarkable and moving album, we hear it with a touch of sadness, too.
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