The syncopated chirping of crickets signals the opening of Night Ride Home, Joni Mitchell's 16th album and the most consistently satisfying one she's made in many years.
The title song, as well as most of the entire album, is reminiscent of Hejira, Mitchell's 1976 album which provided an accessible combination of rock, jazz and folk.
A lack of accessibility has occasionally been a problem in her work, although even the ambitious Don Juan's Reckless Daughter provided treasures to those who weren't willing to immediately dismiss the two-record set.
Mitchell's ambition, in itself, has been an obstacle, especially on her 1979 tribute to jazz musician Charles Mingus. Regardless of how heart-felt her intentions may have been, it's a tough album to endure in its entirety.
Her last three studio albums have been good, if erratic. On Night Ride Home, Mitchell's acoustic guitar is more prominent, and the relatively sparse instrumentation provides excellent support to the songs and her amazing voice.
Lyrically, mature themes prevail, although Mitchell reveals fond memories of her youth through "Ray's Dad's Cadillac" and "Come In From the Cold." On "The Windfall," Mitchell apparently finds herself in the middle of a lawsuit filed by a former employee, who must have started out as a friend.
The album also marks a songwriting collaboration with husband Larry Klein, who wrote the music for "Nothing Can Be Done." Mitchell adapts a W.B. Yeats poem for "Slouching Towards Bethlehem."
Night Ride Home contains some gorgeous sounds, and I hope it's a success, if only to convince Mitchell to get onstage again for a concert tour. As good as her recordings sound, she's even better than that in person.
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