"This album has so often been deprecated by fans and critics of the great Mrs. Mitchell. Too verbose and sophomoric! Too gloomy! Poorly-recorded! Stuck in its era! Or, the damning-with-faint-praise, It held forth the promise of what was to come! Well, admitting a partiality to her early work (pre-"Don's Juan Reckless Daughter"), I would rate this as the third-best Joni album (out of 17 in her career) behind only Blue and Ladies of the Canyon. Yes, it's even better than the great Court and Spark, or even its most-comparable competitor, Clouds.
Musically, Song to a Seagull is grand in its simplicity - the vast majority of the songs feature Joni's fascinating guitar work as the stark support for her piercing, soaring soprano. While Joni's vocals are schooled and formal, they are nonetheless heartbreakingly beautiful, and the looseness afforded by the spare instrumentation (not to mention "producer" David Crosby's love of cavernous echo) gives this a stormy romanticism reminiscent of Tim Buckley's Happy Sad. As for the song selection, it would seem that in response either to what was popular at the time, or to Joni's personal outlook and mood as the album was assembled, she eschewed the many of her songs already made popular by other artists - "Both Sides Now," "Urge for Going," "Circle Game," "Chelsea Morning," "Eastern Rain," etc. - in favor of several that consistently featured fairy-tale or nautical imagery. The lyrics, in all of their fanciful, Byzantine Tolkienisms, can be taken or left - I, for one, embrace them! And so will anyone else who appreciates colorful escapism. What carries the day here, though, is the wistful, melancholy, fiercely free and lonely mood created in the themes of these stories of being stung in life and love - and of stinging others ("Cactus Tree") - by Joni's singing of her haunting melodies. "I Had a King," with its arppegiated "tenement castle" dismissal of the former Mr. Mitchell and the oppression of traditional marriage, has long been my favorite, but there's so much else to appreciate here - "Sisotowbell Lane," "The Dawntreader" (which makes interesting use of the smoky low end of Joni's range - the only range she can use anymore!), the much-ballyhooed anthem "Cactus Tree," and especially the woefully underrated title song. Freedom, dreaminess, and lonely sorrow. I believe that Song to a Seagull (the album, but especially the song) is a personal crie de coeur for the loss of innocence - and a despairing of the possibility of ever finding a soulmate or making a relationship work. And yet there is a retained innocence in the stark openness of Joni's writing and performance. It captures a Joni Mitchell that was not before, and would never be again. This album is so often condemned for being stuck in its time, but those aspects which date it the most are its very appeal, to these ears at least. It takes a certain charming naivete to engage in the hippy-dippy imaginings of some of these lyrics and the Loreena McKennitt-esque antiquarian vocal formality. If you like Nick Drake, Renaissance, Denny-era Fairport, or Astral Weeks, you should love this classic."
Joni Mitchell's Debut Album Is Like Paintings Done Via Music
M. Hart | USA | 04/04/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Recorded in the midst of the Vietnam War and surrounded by sweeping social changes, Joni Mitchell's 1968 debut album "Song to a Seagull" is an elegant and timeless microcosm. The songs are captivating and complex, but use simple instrumentation. Her primary accompaniment is usually her own acoustic guitar, but she is occasionally joined by bass, piano or harmonica. She is also frequently heard providing her own backup singing by recording twice. The album draws the listener into a misty and often melancholic realm through her unique tenor voice, whose range is fully demonstrated. Her lyrics are as descriptive as looking at a painting. My descriptions and ratings (out of 5 stars) of each song follow.1. "I Had a King" (5). A melancholic song about lost love sung expressively with an equally expressive acoustic guitar.
2. "Michael from Mountains" (5). Several key changes occur in this more upbeat song about romance
3. "Night in the City" (5+). Fast and exhilarating song about going out on the town, with Joni herself providing her own backup harmony and accompanied by piano and bass.
4. "Marcie" (5+). A soft, melancholic but very emotional song about a woman waiting to her from her man, sung in a minor key with several key changes.
5. "Nathan La Franeer" (4.5). An emotional and complex song about riding a taxi driven by Nathan La Franeer through busy city streets. Sung mostly softly, but with several instense moments. Accompanied occasionally by a harmonica that imitates the sounds of traffic.
6. "Sisotowbell Lane" (4.5). A soft, slow and airy song about being home and gazing out from the front porch, sung primarily in high octaves.
7. "The Dawntreader" (5). A more intense and emotional song that Joni sings in her beautiful tenor range about sights and sounds of a harbor and going out to sea.
8. "The Pirate of Penance" (5+). Probably the album's most complex song with a Spanish flavor and fast singing reminiscent of a flamenco dancer and unusual chords and lyrics about a mysterious murder told by two people: Penance and the Dancer.
9. "Song to a Seagull" (5). A softer Spanish flavor blends with Joni's wide ranging voice in this melancholic song about reflections on decisions while watching the seabirds.
10. "Cactus Tree" (5+). A more upbeat and faster song, but still melancholic with lyrics about love, fear of commitment and war.I rate this elegant debut album by Joni Mitchell with a resounding 5 out of 5 stars. It's music and words are just as powerful as they were when it was recorded 35 years ago. I highly recommend it."
Not your average debut
MurrayTheCat | upstate New York | 12/17/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Joni Mitchell came out of the early-to-mid-60s folk scene, but her music defies categories such as folk, rock, folk-rock, etc. (Great music is certainly more than a categorical phenomenon.) "Song To A Seagull" (1968) was her debut, but in this case, debut by no means spells beginner. (Interestingly, many of the songs on "Clouds" (1969) were written prior to this album.) Even here, she very convincingly offers something that fills the cracks between genres: a unique artistry that blends, to varying degrees, the heartfelt simplicity of folk, the rhythmic, youthful allure of rock and the expansive, detail-mindedness of classical. (Later she would incorporate the improvisational, bonds-loosened feel of jazz as well.) She accompanies herself with double-tracked acoustic guitar--enchantingly played. Occasionally, other instruments are unobtrusively added. The sound of the recording is atmospheric, ideal for the program. For the most part the music broods, but there are a few bright spots. Joni's a great storyteller and the characters are portrayed with a strong sense of reality: songs about common relationships, people we may have met, emotions we may feel at times or thoughts we may have once pondered.As the album begins, her arpeggiated guitar chords mesmerize. The melody doesn't travel the well-worn path. We know straightaway that this is no average songwriter. The music is rich and complex, but she presents complexities so simply. One forgets how advanced the music is as she draws the listener into a world of magic and aural wonder. "I Had A King" and "Michael From Mountains" are moody and beautiful. "Night In The City" adds piano and bass and has a strong, rhythmic 6/8 feel. On the chorus, the double-tracked harmony is divine. The poignant "Marcie" is a favorite and "Nathan La Franeer" is quite moving.Joni draws attention to certain lines in very interesting ways. For example, in "Sisotowbell Lane" she takes the melody from the second to the last line of the verse and repeats it on the second to the last line of the chorus. The lyrics are similar as well. But, she holds the note on the verse and cuts off the one on the chorus. This cut-off note sets us up for the last line of the chorus. At that point, the projected imagery expands from colorful to so vibrantly tactile you can almost touch it. Here's an illustration:Last part of the first verse:"Jovial neighbors come down when they will--With stories to tell--Sometimes they do [This melody will be repeated below, "do" is sustained here.]--Yes sometimes we do"Last part of the first chorus:"Eating muffin buns and berries--By the steamy kitchen window--Sometimes we do [The melody from above is repeated here, "do" is short, creating great anticipation.]--Our tongues turn blue" [Because of the anticipation and the rhythmic emphasis on the words "tongues turn," these blue tongues become as vivid as you can possibly imagine.]"Tongues turn" is a measure of 2 rather than 4--the V7 chord has been held for a bit longer than usual up to this point, so that when it finally resolves to the I chord on the note for "blue," the emotional release is added to the imagery. I think she's a genius."The Dawntreader," "The Pirate Of Pennace" and "Song To A Seagull" are each brilliant and enchanting. She ends with the charming "Cactus Tree," yet another thought-provoking masterpiece.For her debut, Joni Mitchell produces something original (and in the world of popular music, that is rare indeed). The album reveals a master at work; not the work of an amateur having just learned to finger three or four chords, or having just learned to make melody using the most basic of scale tones. And, these are not the lyrics of a beginner, a flower child or a sophomoric "student" of the art. Here we have the uncommon work of a true artist. This isn't music that "rocks." It's cerebral, beautiful, thought provoking and mature--free of any pretenses. After listening to her work, most other popular music will seem so incredibly shallow.Many seem to prefer Joni on her more rhythmically involved albums. I like those too, but I prefer the ones--like this one--that show off her quietly brooding magic, her marriage of the earthy and the celestial. In my mind, if you don't know Joni Mitchell and don't need strong beats to be entertained, this is the place to start. This, or the glorious "Clouds" (1969), will do just fine to introduce you to her world of sophisticated enchantment.
"listen my children, and you will hear . . ."
Phil Rogers | Ann Arbor, Michigan | 06/03/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Those critics who shabbily state that such-and-such work of music is "stuck in its time", "sophomoric", "seems dated", and similar appellations--were they to peer carefully into a smoky mirror, would see that they have ears of jackals. I have had enough of them. As the first few bars of "I Had a King" grace your ears and chill your heart, anyone with any sort of unbound sensibility may well find themselves gliding slowly, carefully through some dark subterranean passage next to a gurgling underground stream, on the brink of discovering something astounding--still not quite knowing what is being announced to the world in these musical notes and their nearly breathless lyrics, but sensing that nothing like this had ever been heard before.Here was a folk music which took us beyond what folk usually could . . . ah no, so far, far beyond what 'urban folk music' ever had. You'd have to dig deeply into the old Celtic and other ancient European 'catalogues' to find such emotions as this, and maybe never, even there, would they be expressed on as personal a level. This most ancient of sensibilities has enshrined itself in a gem of a work of art, and yet somehow possesses a thoroughly modern sound. It's good that "The Circle Game" isn't included here, for that song is a generalization of what this album does. This album is the real "Circle Game" . . . a collection of multiple moods, incarnated as stories in song . . . poetic, by turns light and dark and many shades in between; sometimes colorful, sometimes corrosive/erosive, always expressive and deep, and brilliantly personal.It turns out that David Crosby produced, and Stephen Stills played bass on this effort. If you think about it, what a sad thing it is that Crosby, Stills and Nash hadn't instead been Crosby, Stills and Mitchell--what a trio that would have been--they would not even have had to subsequently recruit Neil Young! But history has a way of going in its own direction, glorious alternate possibilities notwithstanding."
Still holds up nicely
Phil Rogers | 09/02/1999
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Listening to this album now has me contrasting Joni Mitchell in 1968 with Joni Mitchell at the end of the millenium. Her albums over the last thirty-plus years are like listening to a person grow, and still being able to appreciate that person's first growth spurt. She's far more cynical now and may not even relate anymore to the doe-eyed flower child she was...but that younger self had a strength all her own. "I Had A King" and "Cactus Tree" were pretty, but they were also tough-eye views of love gone sour, and, conversely, the sweetness within "Michael From Mountains," "Sisotowbell Lane" and the title song is as timeless as ever. Joni Mitchell has been a powerful musical force from this first album on. This CD contains songs that still fall into your heart and has a hard time leaving."