on 30 August 2007
This is a classic example of the "brilliant first album". An artist puts years of ideas into her first offering, with her own unadulterated personality on display. The result is powerful, innovative, and retains its rough edges.
I first heard it in 1968, when it fell loosely into the "folky" category. Adolescent fans of that genre (as I was) idolized people like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon as "Folk Poets". Half-way through the first track, scanning the words on the record cover, I had one of life's epiphanies. I thought "This woman really is a poet!" Her words, in this and many subsequent albums, make all those other song writers seem insipid, artless, incompetent.
Her arrival on the scene was actually quite explosive. She had a lot of street credibility from the outset. She grew up in Saskatoon, in the Canadian far-north. She had given birth to and parted with a child, been briefly married, and done her time playing in cellars in the Boho zone. She was in with Crosby, Stills and Nash and a host of others at the sharp end of the music scene of the time. Many well-known artists started recording her songs almost immediately. Everyone was entranced with her words. She had influential fans for two years before the production of this first album.
For her first album, she interestingly chose to record newly-written songs, in a "concept" format, rather than record the songs for which she was already famous (some of which she included in her second album). Although she was 25 when the album was issued, the sentiments of the songs are often adolescent, sometimes tooth-jarringly so. In the cover notes, she says "This album is dedicated to Mr Kratzman, who taught me to love words"!! Songs like "Michael from Mountains" and "The Dawntreader" seethe with adolescent neurosis. It contrasts with her work from 1971 onwards, which was as adult as it gets. This may seem like a criticism from anyone who is, or aspires to be, an adult, but I have always felt that we were all adolescents once, and adolescents have as much right to be heard as anyone, particularly when they express themselves with the artistry shown here.
Another juvenile characteristic of these songs is the sexual passivity of their sentiments - a trait she later gleefully abandoned. Perhaps also juvenile are the manic-depressive mood-swings of the album, ranging from wild elation to the depths of despair. However, this remained a characteristic of her later work. Compare "Carey" and "The Last Time I Saw Richard" on "Blue" (1971).
Musically, the album is set apart from later offerings by the extraordinary vocal range she then had. A complaint of people trying to sing her early songs (everybody did) was the impossibility of hitting the high and low notes she used, no matter what key was tried. Later, she lost this range, perhaps from over-exposure or from the excesses of the 1960s fast-lane. Listen to "Silky Veils of Ardour" on "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" (1977), which is an amusing pastiche of her early, folky style, delivered in almost a monotone.
In the early days, she mainly played ukulele, often using (I think) strange tunings which she later transferred to guitar, and this adds to the edgy, spare and atmospheric feeling of the music on this album. Hear particularly "I Had a King", where the jarring chord structure mirrors the anger and menace of the words. Her instrumental eccentricity is treated very sympathetically by the Crosby/Stills production, which resists over-elaboration and maintains the simplicity and intimacy of the music with no more than just the right amount of reverb.
In theme, the songs of the album follow the program laid down in "Song to a Seagull". In fact, on the original LP, side 1 was entitled "I came to the city" and side 2 was called "Out of the city and down to the seaside". It describes arrival in "the city" (presumably NY), elated participation in city life, inevitable sexual betrayal, and final descent into urban paranoia. Then comes the rural phase, idyllic at first, then menacing, and finally coming to terms with an adult fact: as every prisoner of the white lines on the freeway knows, when you run away, your problems follow close behind - geography is never the solution!
So what do you get from this album? Poetry as good as any you'll hear in a song, and music that's original and challenging. Although her later work was so much more mature, this remains almost (not quite) my favourite of her albums, because of the "first album" effect - the lack of sophistication is in itself attractive, and the pent-up force of what she had to say hits you between the eyes. Has it worn well over the last 38 years? Absolutely! Unlike much of the music of 1968 (a lot to choose from) it sounds as fresh now as that first day I heard it.
"I call to the seagull who dives to the waters
And catches his silver-fine dinner alone
Crying where are the footprints that danced on these beaches
And the hands that cast wishes that sunk like a stone?"
Here, I guess.
on 29 October 2000
This, Joni Mitchell's first album is still, in my opinion her best. The anguish in her voice, especially on the haunting "I Had A King", the first track, grabs your attention and keeps it through all ten tracks. Tracks 1, 2, 3, 5 and 9 would grace any album by any singer. The lyrics could stand alone.
Rumour has it the album was originally entitled "Song To A Seagull" (see the cover). It could also have been called "Joni Mitchell meets Crosby, Stills and Nash" as Crosby produced it, Stills played bass guitar and Nash was her partner at that time. But any other title would do it an injustice, for this IS "Joni Mitchell".
Buy it and enjoy it, as I have done for over thirty years, yes it was first released in 1968.
Think I misspelled a word in my title? I didn't!
I discovered Joni as a teenager, thanks to a compilation cassette my parents had. I quickly became addicted. At some point, under the pretext of buying them for my mum, I began to amass a collection of her fabulous albums. Her amazing guitar technique - shimmering arpeggios, strange exotic tunings, distinctive picking figures and strumming rhythms - developed in part as a result of childhood polio, such as can be heard on Hejira and elsewhere, is already evident here. This album, like her next, the equally brilliant but better known Clouds, is notable for being just voice and guitar*. For those who know Joni best from albums like Blue, the complete absence of piano may come as something of a surprise. David Crosby's sympathetic, sensitive minimalist production is near perfect, Joni's raw talent shining through, like a perfectly set diamond.
Mitchell has always stressed that she was no 'folkie', ordinary or otherwise. Poet, artist, and composer, her lyrics stand as strong beautiful poems on their own merits; her original cover art gives her albums added homogeneity and personality (this particular cover, whilst not her strongest, has period charm); and her music? Well, as my title suggests, in some respects it's possible to liken the effect of it to a powerful narcotic. Personal favourites here are 'I Had A King', 'Michael From The Mountains', 'Marcie', 'Nathan La Franeer', 'Sisowtowbell Lane', 'The Dawntreader', 'Song To A Seagull', and 'Cactus Tree'. Well, that's nigh on the lot! The upbeat 'Night In The City' doesn't work so well for me, and 'The Pirate Of Penance', a strong tune by normal standards, in the context of Joni's own best work, seems too contrived to me. She does both upbeat and clever ('Chelsea Morning' and 'Songs To Ageing Children Come') much better on Clouds.
'I Had A King' justifies the asking price purchase alone. Joni's described her early songs as the work of an 'ingénue', and it's undoubtedly true that she matured as she progressed. But, however you cut it, for a debut this is, in modern parlance, awesome. The lyrics of 'I Had A King', which display a youthful preoccupation with fashionable fabrics of the day ("drip-dry and paisley", "leather and lace"), also possess poetic genius ("I had a king, in a salt-rusted carriage / Who carried me off, to his country for marriage"), profound insight, especially remarkable in one so young, and are married to a level of musical prowess that, thanks to her singular melodic and harmonic conception, make Mitchell's music unique. And what's more, pretty much all of this underrated album measures up to the high standards set by this magnificent opener. Another good example of her formidable songwriting skills is 'Nathan La Franeer': drawn from observations made during a cab ride, it becomes a universal paean to the potential loneliness and alienation of city life, whilst all the while remaining profoundly beautiful.
Joni Mitchell is easily the greatest female singer-songwriter, and poet-composer there has ever been (to my mind only Brazil's Joyce Moreno comes anywhere close), and is surely amongst the greatest regardless of gender. This, the first gem mined from a long, rich musical seam, is both priceless and essential.
* Well, Stephen Stills plays bass on one track, and there's 'banshee' on another.
Joni Mitchell was 25 when she first went into a recording studio to record the enviable inventory of songs that became Song To A Seagull. By this time she had been performing professionally for several years and her songs had already been recorded by some of folk's biggest names, notably Tom Rush and Judy Collins, whose orchestral version of Mountain From Mountains can be compared directly with the starker, simpler version heard here. The album was thematic with one side titled I Came To The City and the other Out Of The City And Down To The Seaside and comprised mainly Joni Mitchell accompanying herself on guitar and piano, with the occasional banshee and Stephen Stills on bass, thanks to David Crosby's sensitive production. This put the focus squarely on Joni's performance and the remarkable strength of her writing. Only a moderate success at the time it nevertheless set in motion the relentless trajectory of her fame, and still sounds fresh and perceptive, grating only when her voice enters the higher registers.
In the UK, Night In The City was released as a single and raised her profile with some radio plays on programmes such as Top Gear
on 7 May 2007
As a long time Joni Mitchell fan how did I miss this one? Well, like many others who got into her music after her first rush of success her debut, devoid of any "hits" and rarely played on the radio, then & now, somehow just passed me by. My loss... because, it's a fragile, haunting and impeccably played & sung album. David Crosby's production extracts the best from what was, as time has shown, an incredibly talented artist putting everything into her first release and its pared-down, at times almost sparse arrangements are a huge credit to both artists in capturing "singer/songwriter folk music" at its very highest levels.
A lot of what of what was to follow was better and justifiably more successful but "Song To A Seagull" has that rarest of things - a level of purity and sincerity in its lyrics and execution that makes it absolutely timeless. So much so that its most successful track, "Night in the City", with its excellent, folk/rock orientated delivery ends up as an almost uncomfortable distraction from the spellbinding simplicity of what surrounds it. A seriously under-rated and quite beautiful record.
on 28 March 2013
Joni stands head and shoulders above her contemporaries. 'Song to a Seagull' set a standard that most singer-songwriters, past and present, would aspire to but simply not reach. 'Blue', (one of Joni's later acclaimed albums) was, for me, always up there; treasured as a beautiful, fragile, funny and deeply emotional ride, nestling like a gem among my priceless stacks of ageing vinyl. I thought on Blue I had Joni at her best, but a couple of plays into 'Song to..' i was absolutely mesmerised, intrigued and moved and could barely wait for the embers of the last track to fade before pressing 'play' again for another dose. (I reluctantly had to move on from vinyl).
I find the word 'folk' off putting: I'm no hippy, i've never done any drugs, never strum a guitar and I'm not big on anything else with 'folk' connotations. At the height of my music library are Joy Division, Beefheart, The Doors, Sonic Youth, The Smiths, The Pixies, The Beatles, The Stones, Velvet U'ground, Love, Eminem, Television.. so I'm not a fan of genres and sticking to them. Add this LP to your collection, leave your musical taste prejudice out of the room and enjoy this for what it is. A collection of superb songs, musically and lyrically perfectly composed and sung like an angel. Let it wash over you for 3 plays with an open mind and you'll start to get it.
on 4 September 2011
"Blue" apart, this album vies with any of Joni's first five, but as a debut constantly amazes. A Customer's original review covers the bases, but my favourite tracks are "Marcie" (love the "Red's for..." "Green's for..." motif) and "Cactus Tree", a song with - again - proper structure, beautiful images and a wonderfully unresolved ending:
Someone thought they saw her Sunday
Window shopping in the rain;
Someone heard she bought a one-way
Ticket and went west again.
Can't really agree about "Night in the City" - Joni usually includes an upbeat song, or attempted hit single, as I think we can call it.
I first bought this album in about 1969 (what else do you do when you buy a superb second album and there is no 3rd album yet?) when it was just called "Joni Mitchell" - see the record spine of my original! - and was arrogantly convinced that later incarnations as "Song to a Seagull" were stupid errors caused by over-examination of the cover. There are, after all, other references to the lyrics in Joni's artwork. However, Wikipedia tells me that the mistake was on the original, caused by an error in Reprise' publicity dept. and it was always "Song to a Seagull". Does anyone know what Joni says?
on 12 June 2011
What words best describe Joni Mitchell's (1968) debut album, Song To A Seagull?
Well... I would say melancholic,serious,atmospheric, beautiful ,unique,affecting ,bold and brilliant!This album remains for me (along with Blue) Joni Mitchell's best and most satisfying early work.Although subsequent albums contain many superb songs/ moments,I always seem to find myself skipping certain tracks.
On this album the only song that I am occasionally tempted to skip is the more up-tempo "Night In The City",that sounds slightly at odds with the rest of the songs here.The rest of the album holds together really well resulting in a cohesive collection where the songs,the musicianship,the words and Joni's voice leave a powerfull and lasting impression on the listener . The unpretenious production and clear,strong sound quality are also top notch .
Joni's voice is mature in it's depth,warmth,range and delivery.Her guitar playing is imaginative,technically excellent,never over-indulgent and always works for the greater good I.E ,the song itself.In fact,the acoustic guitar and Joni's voice dominate this recording to a greater extent than any of her others.The style that Joni uses to play her guitar here is usually finger-picking ; think "Scarborough Fair/ Canticle" ( the Simon and Garfunkel version) and you will be close to the mark.
Previous reveiwers have described the songs on this album in great depth so I will simply list a few of my personal favourites.The opener,"I Had A King" contains spine chilling vocals when Joni sings in her higher register.I have a great affection for "The Dawntreader" because it was this song that brought my attention to the album in the first place when it was played on Lyric FM's late night radio show,"The Blue of The Night".This song contains some of my favourite guitar playing.Finally I will include the title track, "Song To A Seagull",whose rich atmosphere epitomises the feel and character of the album .
If you enjoy music with the aforementioned qualities ,within a largely Folk oriented leaning,then do yourslf a big favour and give "Song To A Seagull" a listen;I believe you will be glad that you did!
on 23 December 2010
Dimly remembered from my mid teenage years, but never heard since then, I was delighted in my mid 50s to find that this LP was available in CD format. I recognised the cover, but had never known the name. Joni Mitchell's lilting voice is unrepeatable and unique, and haunting at times. Her range and ability to turn up the volume reminds one of a swelling organ, while sounding like an exquisite flute at other times. Interestingly, the music still sounds utterly contemporary, and the lyrics have not dated either. There's something timeless about this - Im know I will still enjoy listenig to this for another 35 years ! A very wise investment.
on 23 May 2015
As a fan of Joni Mitchell for forty-five years, this album was a revelation to me. I'd heard most of her early stuff except this one, and listened over the years to so much from her other albums, but I'd completely missed the best one of all. This album is wonderful... Joni at her absolute best -- fresh, inventive, beautiful songs with clever, sharp lyrics. As usual, she sings of her quest for love, and her disillusionment with love; her intensity and freshness are stunning, her powers of description and observation (again, as usual) almost unmatched.
An absolute gem, which I'm very happy to have discovered!