ALBUM REVIEW : **** JONI MITCHELL “Night Ride Home”, <i> Geffen </i>

“When I thought life had some meaning / Then I thought I had some choice . . . / And I made some value judgments / In a self-important voice,” Mitchell sings in one of her new numbers, perhaps speaking for a burned-out generation of angry activists and cynics: “All we ever wanted was to come in from the cold.”

Fans may well take this verse as an explanation--if not an apology--for the caustic, combative social commentary that characterized much of Mitchell’s work over the last decade. But regardless of the intended allusion, the Mitchell of “Night Ride Home” is certainly a far sight more mellow than the agitated Mitchell of “Dog Eat Dog” and other ‘80s albums. She knows too much to ever again be the sweet lady of the canyon a counterculture adored, but this is an agreeably peaceful, and surprisingly peaceable, thawing out, characterized by hard-won warmth.

Not that the album is without its ominous touches--as in “The Windfall,” a greed parable about divorce settlements, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” an adaptation of a chilling Yeats poem, and “Cherokee Louise,” about a runaway molested child.

But it’s indicative of Mitchell’s sense of renewal that two songs here are written from the perspective of a juvenile, even while her sense of romanticism is most at work in other tracks that frankly acknowledge middle age:

Is this just vulgar electricity


Is this the edifying fire . . .

Are you checking out your mojo

Or am I just fighting off getting old?

With only about four players per song, the album’s sound is as stripped-down as Mitchell has gotten in a while: lush, smooth sailing of the sort that Joni fans who’ve been away a while will love to come back to. What they’ll find is an artist who has continued to grow in surprising ways--as opposed to fighting off getting old. Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to five stars (a classic.)