When word spread that Mitchell was working on a back-to-basics album, a lot of people probably got the wrong idea. No, she did not enter a time warp and turn herself back into a young troubadour, reconfessing her most intimate feelings in bittersweet folk songs. Her 10 new tunes are much more complex (and interesting) than that.
Mitchell's music has gone through many changes, from folk to pop to jazz to a fusion all her own. On Night Ride Home she swirls all her styles into one collage.
For the first time in years, she accompanies herself mostly with her acoustic guitar (and, on one song, piano), cutting way back on the synthesizers. But every now and then she colors a melody with an electronic special effect, a jazzy horn reminiscent of her 1974 album, Court and Spark, or a jumping bass riff (played by her husband, Larry Klein) that brings to mind her 1979 Mingus album. Though her voice sometimes seems strained by years of chain-smoking, her singing more often sounds rich and confident. She can still fly up the octaves to create those strange overdubbed harmonies.
Mitchell writes different lyrics at 47 from those she wrote in her more callow days. More cautious, more private, she avoids intimate confessions even in love songs, though on "Come in from the Cold." she reveals a few moments of doubt about love: "Is this just vulgar electricity?/ Is this the edifying fire?/ Does your smile's covert complicity debase as it admires?"
Childhood memories still loom large in Mitchell's lyrics. "Cherokee Louise," for instance, tells of a teenage friend who was ostracized by her community after being abused by her foster father.
Typical of Night Ride Home's range are two beautiful yet very different songs. The title tune, accompanied by the soothing sound of crickets, shows an optimistic appreciation of life. "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," with lyrics from a Yeats poem, has a disturbing, darker melody.
Mitchell is still seeing life from both sides. She just does it these days with a few more years and a little more wisdom behind her. (Geffen)