By 1968 Joni Mitchell had already written hits for other artists but decided that she wanted to write, record, and perform for herself. Song For A Seagull is her debut album and showcases her love of folk, classical, and jazz music. Her first four albums would be similarly influenced before she began to experiment and become alienated by various scenes, but during this stage of her career her music never sounded so pure. The album is mostly just her voice and guitar, the music accompanying parables about love, life, and despair, moving from pastoral fantasies to songs of yearning, from the energy and joy of night life to dreaming of freedom. It neither contains the hits of her next couple of albums, nor the musical variety of Blue and later albums, but remains today a near perfect folk album and a fascinating insight into the Sixties.
`I Had a King’ opens the album with a story of lost love, perhaps relating to her own early failed marriage. It introduces us to four main features of early Joni; sumptuous yet unconventional finger picking; intense, imaginative, introspective lyrics; songs which sound like stories; and of course her soaring voice which is more of an instrument than a backing orchestra of a hundred. Melodically it isn’t overly memorable and musically the tone seems quite dark and atmospheric.
`Michael From Mountains’ immediately sounds softer and lighter, and the song can be read as either a story of lost love, of a man who was everything to the woman; Someone who is giving, but whose mind and inner self will be forever unattainable for you. Alternately it sounds like a song from a mother to her son, the relationship protecting and giving life to both. Lyrically it is very sweet and poetic and can almost be seen as a precursor to Little Green.
`Night In The City’ has a jaunty, saloon like sound. There are interesting melodies and overlapping voices, pianos and strummed chords which give the song a highly energetic feel. It is about her love of night life, and has the sense of exposure to city for first time, being awakened to the sights, sounds, atmosphere for the first time and instantly being part of it all. It is probably the most upbeat song on the album and one which is a joy every listen.
`Marcie’ is my favourite song on the album, lyrically and musically perfect, both sides serving the other flawlessly. It is the soft story of lonely woman, yearning for more. Lyrically it is highly colourful and draws the listener into the very streets that the characters walk upon. Descriptive, not too metaphorical lending a sense of kinship it is one of her best lyrics. The small details of life, trivialities, days passing lift the song to more than mere commercial pop.
`Nathan La Franeer’ is a song retelling a meeting Joni had with a strange Taxi Driver, but made more interesting by showing us all the people and things she saw out the window. The lyrics are quite biting, speaking about anger, greed, and being an alien to a fellow human while sharing a common space. The hope for all people coming together, one love, and other hippy ideals of the time are clearly portrayed, but the other side is also shown. Marked by some odd guitar noises, it is not as memorable musically. It closes the first half of the album, a stepping stone to the more dreamlike second half of escape and freedom.
`Sistowbell Lane’ opens part two, a story of quaint suburbia, soft guitar and voice similar to Morning Morgantown. Again the music is light and dreamy mirroring the idyllic lyrics. It conveys the feeling that country is better, more desirable to a middle class city life with its useless luxuries.
`Dawntreader’ tells of a sea voyage but more widely as escape and freedom. Soft guitar with vocal surges stand out, vocals and guitar getting louder as the character comes closer to leaving. The lyrics are typically idyllic, like a friend whispering her dreams in your ear.
`Pirate Of Penance’ is an interesting song dealing with an unusual theme and featuring strange dueling vocals. It is a story of a pirate who comes to town on certain days, there is a murder, and the aftermath with quizzing between locals, and a Dancer. The vocals are sung quite quickly and frantically, possibly to echo the panic felt by the character and the frenzied nature of a mob. Musically the guitar takes a background seat to the vocals.
`Song To A Seagull’ is a sparse, mellow song to a seagull. The sea theme continues, although she compares features of the sea to features of the city. She sings of the loss of dreams, changing times, dreaming of the unattainable. The song suffers like a few others on the album by not standing out musically whilst having great lyrics.
`Cactus Tree’ closes the album as it opened- soft, melodic, lyrically diverse. The song speaks of men trying to reach the women they love, but they are free and cannot be reached, trapped in relationship. Still others are scared of falling love, scared of compromise, scared of giving up nothing and everything, possibly echoing Joni’s own feelings at the time. It is a good song to finish on and leaves the listener yearning for more.
The main flaw of the album as mentioned is that too many songs lack variation musically. Luckily the music is beautiful enough for this to be overlooked. This only really matters when you take Joni’s next albums into consideration which are just as beautiful, but also have more variation. Over the next few albums Joni would reach a type of perfection before leaving behind her folk roots and embarking on a jazzy, fused, experimental journey which would separate some fans who wished for more of the same as what is on offer here.
If you enjoyed this, please check out the music section for other Joni reviews.