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.