That said, the title track uses crickets as a metronome, but they’re no match for the strong melody. A “Hejira”-like pattern drives “Passion Play (When All The Slaves Are Free)”, which somehow links the crucifixion of Christ with Exxon oil. Less obscure is “Cherokee Louise”, a haunting sketch of early adolescence where a happy ending seems impossible. It’s oddly juxtaposed with “The Windfall (Everything For Nothing)”, seemingly a tirade against a hired hand who felt financially shortchanged. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is very poetic, and rightfully so, being her musical re-setting of a Yeats piece.
While probably too long to be a hit single, “Come In From The Cold” is the most accessible track here, a slightly more wistful reminiscence of the same time period as “Cherokee Louise”, multiple Jonis forming a complex choir around the title. The music for “Nothing Can Be Done” is credited to Larry Klein, her lyrics seeming to be navigating the choppy waters of a relationship, with prominent vocal assistance from David Baerwald of David + David. “The Only Joy In Town” is a valentine to a “Botticelli black boy” she encountered in Rome, while “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac” goes back to her teenage years yet again; it’s the least successful of the trio, mostly because of how the title is repeated and repeated and repeated. What seals the album as truly worthwhile is the last track, where she plays piano for the first time in forever. “Two Grey Rooms” is a sad glimpse of unrequited love she swears isn’t autobiographical, and that’s why it resonates. Granted, there’s a rhythm section, and even strings, but those suspended chords bring joy to these ears.
Since we don’t offer ratings in quarter-point increments, we considered placing this album at a more conservative level, but when compared to her work of the previous ten years, it truly stands out. Although her devotion to cigarettes has ensured that she’ll never again sound like her first four albums, Night Ride Home is still a journey back to simplicity, and it’s about time.
Joni Mitchell Night Ride Home (1991)—3½