Sunday, November 25, 2018

Song To a Seagull - Joni Mitchell

Somehow, David Crosby and Joni Mitchell , along with Elliot Roberts, who Mitchell initially referred to as "Mr. 10 Percent," were able to secure a recording contract that gave the Mitchell complete artistic control (even including the album cover), unheard of at the time, particularly for an unknown. Crosby would go on to be Joni's one and only producer, but his hands-off style was just what Joni was seeking. Crosby's approach was to keep the "rock" out of the production, to keep it a purely folk venture. With that in mind there are only two musicians on the LP, Mitchell and bassist Stephen Stills. The LP has ten songs with two unique sections, "I Came to the City" and "Out of the City and Down to the Seaside."

Joni would tour extensively in 1968 to support the LP and continued to profit from several other artists recording her songs. With her financial success, Joni bought her first home in Laurel Canyon. 

The album was well received, though many were put off by the intimacy apparent, an intimacy that to the album's supporters was over the top. Gerry Garcia once said that the Grateful Dead's music was like licorice; that not everyone liked licorice, but those that do, really like licorice. Such was the case with Seagull. Melody Maker's Karl Dallas said of Joni, "Talking to Joni Mitchell about her songs is rather like talking to someone you just met about the most intimate secrets of her life."

The first side of the LP is the "city" side: life in the city, love in the city, dark secrets in the city. The lyrical picture painted isn't one of total despair, in fact, it's multi-sided, but it's definitely bleaker than whatever ensues. The minimalism of the LP’s first side is gorgeous in retrospect, bold in its simplicity, and deceiving. "Night In The City" is the only fully-produced tracks on the album, where Joni is joined by Steve Stills on bass and layers her vocals across the top like a rich sauce. The most fascinating part, though, is the overdub of her own vocal harmonies - the chirping "Night in the CIIITY, night in the CIIITY, looks PRETTY to me" is mesmerizing. 

Side two is a blend of imagery and sea shanties with sailing ships, pirates, seagulls, and oceanic longing. "The Pirate Of Penance" and "Song To A Seagull" are really striking; the former a fully-written drama unto itself, once again showcasing Joni's miraculous "duetting with herself", and the latter boasting a certain "majesty of olde" as the lyrics suggest: "My dreams with the seagulls fly, out of reach, out of cry." "Cactus Tree" is for many the LP's star, building on Dylanish lyrics that micic "A Hard Rain". Crosby’s first impressions of Joni aren't lost on the listener.

Note the Error in the Original Release - The LP's Title is Cut Off

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 the most successful track (by this writer's estimation), "Night in the City," ends up as an almost uncomfortable distraction from the spellbinding simplicity of what surrounds it. Songs to a Seagull is a seriously under-rated and beautiful LP.