Joni Mitchell was the queen of singer-songwriters, the most articulate and accomplished of the bunch. Then she got interested in jazz and spent a decade failing to communicate. Night Ride Home (Geffen) is her umpteenth comeback.
This one works. The main reasons are Mitchell's own voice and her acoustic guitar. Her words, the beats, the arrangements are still embellished with feeling and intelligence, and there are piano-based songs, too. But the arrangements focus on Mitchell's performances, which play to her strengths.
Those strengths are less literary, more musical than most imagine. What's great about Mitchell's lyrics is how well they sing, the way the syllables fashion themselves into rhythms that make their primary sense as internal dialog. Perhaps the biggest compliment Night Ride Home can be paid is that songs such as Cherokee Louise, Come In from the Cold and The Only Joy in Town make perfect sense without reference to the lyric sheet. Nobody but Van Morrison does it better.
The best lines leap out, anyway: "Who're you gonna get to do the dirty work/When all the slaves are free?" Mitchell wonders, and because she then mutters something about "Exxon blue" and "radiation rose," I presume she's making a point about ecodisaster. But the real point of Night Ride Home is the way she makes music, with a flowing, glowing love of sound that's the essence of pop artistry.