Song to a Seagull is the 1968 debut album by the Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. This is a very mannered gentle hippiesque beatniky album and absolutely wonderful for most of its duration. Song to a Seagull is a trifle pretentious (Joni Mitchell doesn't always give you the impression that she has a great sense of humour) and perhaps not as widely acclaimed as Blue or Clouds but I found it more or less as enjoyable as those records and a very impressive debut. If anything, I liked more songs here than one the other albums (although one could of course argue that the highs on Blue reach higher peaks). There are ten songs here and there isn't really an out and out dud amongst them. The first portion of the album is titled "I Came to the City" and then the imagery of the lyrics shifts for the second half with "Out of the City and Down to the Seaside". Song to a Seagull begins with I Had a King - a low-key haunting song with just an acoustic guitar. Joni Mitchell goes very falsetto here to great effect and the song is always pleasant and charming and all the better for the simplicity of its construction. This song is about a lost love and there is a faint bitterness to the lyrics which give the impression of being cathartic for the singer to perform. "I had a king dressed in drip-dry and paisley, Lately he's taken to saying I'm crazy and blind, He lives in another time, Ladies in gingham still blush, While he sings them of wars and wine, But I in my leather and lace, I can never become that kind." The next song, Michael From Mountains, is again (for the most part) a very languid and gentle song with the singer often falsetto and has very little in the way of background music save for an acoustic guitar as a backdrop for Joni Mitchell's sometimes poetic/sometimes obtuse meditations. In this case the song seems to be less knotty lyrically and more straight forward, even optimistic, suggesting a vista where a gap in the clouds has appeared and sunlight is beginning to stream through. "Yellow slickers up on swings, Like puppets on strings hanging in the sky, They'll splash home to suppers in wallpapered kitchens, Their mothers will scold, But Michael will hold you, To keep away cold till the sidewalks are dry."
Night in the City is a faster song (as fast as a Joni Mitchell song gets anyway) and much busier than the first two songs as far as the music goes with a bass and piano to accompany the singer alongside the usual strumming guitar. I like the opening of this song in particular where Joni Mitchell serves as her own backing singers and even seems to do a bit of yodelling. It's a Joni Mitchell yodel though. Very falsetto and charming. This song seems to eschew the introspective gloom that Joni Mitchell is best known for during the early phase of her career and is more upbeat and joyous, a simple celebration of the small things in life. "Night in the city looks pretty to me, Night in the city looks fine, Music comes spilling out into the street, Colors go flashing in time." You could make a case for this being the most purely enjoyable song on the album. Marcie is another wonderful song that is again very simple in its construction with just Joni Mitchell and an acoustic guitar. This is a beautifully plaintive song full of sorrow and woe and sung in a very heartfelt and restrained way by the singer in perfect fashion. Marcie is longer than some of the other songs here but it never threatens to outstay its welcome too much as it envelops the listener under its tranquil spell. The lyrics are decent too with lines about ocean beaches and the sadness of waiting for something. "Marcie in a coat of flowers, Steps inside a candy store, Reds are sweet and greens are sour, Still no letter at her door, So she'll wash her flower curtains, Hang them in the wind to dry, Dust her tables with his shirt and, Wave another day goodbye."
Nathan La Franeer is (again) a longer song and themed around driving a taxi through city streets. This is like a medieval warbler I suppose with Joni Mitchell sounding a bit deeper here than on some of the songs we have already listened to so far on Song To A Seagull. It's maybe not quite one of my favourites here but it is very good and once again quite charming. The singer adopts more of a stream of consciousness approach to the lyrics which is unavoidably pretentious but works quite well all the same. "The cars and buses bustled thru the bedlam of the day, I looked thru window-glass at streets and Nathan grumbled at the grey, I saw an aging cripple selling Superman balloons, The city grated thru chrome-plate, The clock struck slowly half-past-noon Thru the tunnel tiled and turning, Into daylight once again I am escaping, Once again goodbye, To symphonies and dirty trees, With parks and plastic clothes, The ghostly garden grows." Sisotowbell Lane is once again wonderful and a Premier League piece of hippiesque rambling. What I love about this album is that everything is so simple. It's just Joni Mitchell and her guitar and you don't really need much more than that. Sisotowbell Lane finds the singer in high octave and singing beautifully and this has one of my favourite lyrics too. "We have a rocking chair, Each of us rocks his share, Eating muffin buns and berries, By the steamy kitchen window, Sometimes we do, Our tongues turn blue." How very true. The Dawntreader is a longer song and (ahem) awash with nautical imagery. "Peridots and periwinkle blue medallions, Gilded galleons spilled across the ocean floor, Treasure somewhere in the sea and he will find where, Never mind their questions there's no answer for, The roll of the harbor wake, The songs that the rigging makes." This is the first song on this album that didn't sprinkle me with hippy stardust and make me feel like I was tending botanical gardens under bio domes in the farthest reaches of space dressed like a monk. Joni Mitchell puts absolutely everything into this song but I think she maybe tries a bit too hard and even skates the fringes of becoming grating on one or two occasions. This is good by the standards of anyone else but lacks that delicate airy fairy patent early Joni Mitchell sound that I personally like the most.
The Pirate of Penance is the most pretentious song on the album and Joni Mitchell essentially conducts a duet with herself in high speed whispers and falsettos. It's like a sort of sea shanty with some flamenco sounding interludes and backdrops. Not really my favourite song here although the singer's vocal dexterity is impressive. The lyrics are about a murder and once again we are by the sea and immersed in appropriate lyrics and images. "I saw his sails unfurling Thursday dawn, The pirate he will sink you with a kiss, He'll steal your heart and sail away." Song to a Seagull is more in the vein musically of some of the earlier songs on the album and very pretty and affecting. This song is about having a big decision to make and having to spend some time alone in contemplation and reflection before doing anything. I like the fact that the song is softer again although the music is more complex than some of the earlier songs and that's not something I necessarily welcome on these albums. The lyrics are nice here I think. You don't always know what Joni Mitchell is going on about but you always sort of know what she means. "I came to the city, And lived like old Crusoe, On an island of noise, In a cobblestone sea, And the beaches were concrete, And the stars paid a light bill, And the blossoms hung false, On their store window trees, My dreams with the seagulls fly, Out of reach out of cry." The final song Cactus Tree is one of the best here and a fitting way to close the album. The lyrics are the usual vague Joni Mitchell ruminations (love, war, etc) but the song (despite being more upbeat than some of the others here) is very affecting and fluffy cloud like much of what has come before, especially in the early part of the album. This is quintessential Joni Mitchell and a pleasant way to bring the record to a close. "There's a man who's been out sailing, In a decade full of dreams, And he takes her to a schooner, And he treats her like a queen, Bearing beads from California, With their amber stones and green, He has called her from the harbor, He has kissed her with his freedom." Song to a Seagull is a great debut record and highly recommended. At the time of writing you can buy this for less than five pounds.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 I Had A King (Lp Version)
2 Michael From Mountains (Lp Version)
3 Night In The City (Lp Version)
4 Marcie (Lp Version)
5 Nathan La Franeer (Lp Version)
6 Sisotowbell Lane (Lp Version)
7 The Dawntreader (Lp Version)
8 The Pirate Of Penance (Lp Version)
9 Song To A Seagull (Lp Version)
10 Cactus Tree (Lp Version)