Thursday, July 8, 2021

Song to a Seagull and Clouds

Recorded in the midst of the Vietnam War and surrounded by sweeping social changes, Joni Mitchell's 1968 underrated debut, Song to a Seagull (AM7), is an elegant and timeless microcosm. The songs are captivating and complex, drawing the listener into a misty and melancholic realm that fills the cracks between genres: a unique artistry that blends 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, not yet.) The sound of the recording is atmospheric and for the most part the music broods, yet Joni is the ultimate storyteller and the characters are portrayed with a strong sense of reality: songs about common relationships, people we may have met, emotions we too may feel or thoughts we may have once pondered. We know straight away that this is no average songwriter. Joni draws attention to certain lines in circumspect unfamiliar ways. 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: simple complexity. The lyrics are similar, she holds a note on the verse and cuts off one from the chorus. This clipped note sets up for the last line of the chorus. The projected imagery expands from colorful to so vibrantly tactile you can touch it.
The album reveals a master at work; not the work of a novice, these aren't the lyrics of a beginner, a flower child or a sophomoric "student" of art, but the uncommon work of a true artist. It's cerebral, beautiful, thought-provoking and mature - free of any pretense. Blue, Court and Spark, the jazz albums are Joni’s shining moments, but Song to a Seagull is quietly brooding magic, Joni's marriage of the earthy and the celestial (captured beautifully in David Crosby understated production). Most important is the imagery apparent within the groves; one can see her there in Laurel Canyon at the piano, David Crosby sitting on the couch behind her, Graham Nash at the dining table scribbling the lyrics to "Our House," the smell of eucalyptus in the air.

Song to a Seagull was released March 1, 1968, with production beginning sometime after August 1967, when Joni met David Crosby. Joni's second LP, Clouds (AM7) would not be released until May 1969, a long span for the era, offering her the luxury of time that many new artists weren't granted (standard contracts called for two LPs per year). Among Clouds' ten tracks, were her own versions of songs already covered by other artists, including "Chelsea Morning," "Tin Angel," and "Both Sides Now."

"Both Sides Now," written more than a year before it ran up the charts for Judy Collins in 1968, was inspired by Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King on a jetliner; in particular, a passage where the main character is traveling by plane looking out over the clouds.  The novel includes the line, "we are the first generation to see the clouds from both sides."

Joni's metaphor alluded to how children see clouds from the ground below, concocting fanciful and innocent images, then, as adults find nothing in them but inclement weather – indeed, both sides, the innocence, the trials and tribulations, the judgments of, let’s call it "the moon and the stars." Joni just didn't understand life or love at all. She was 21. Probably still doesn’t.

Other songs on the Clouds LP, mostly written in late 1967 and early '68, deal with love, lovers, unrequited love, the uncertainty of love, you get the point, in tracks like "I Don’t Know Where I Stand," "Tin Angel," "That Song About the Midway," and "The Gallery." But Clouds also includes "The Fiddle and The Drum," a song that compares America during the Vietnam War to a bitter friend, and "I Think I Understand, which is about mental illness.

In 1969, Joni Mitchell’s Clouds rose to No. 22 on the Canadian chart and No. 31 on the Billboard 200. Mitchell produced all the songs on the album (except for one), played acoustic guitar and keyboards, and was joined by Stephen Stills on bass guitar for just one track. Clouds brought Joni Mitchell a Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance. On Clouds, as well as Song To A Seagull we encounter a woman in a tug of war between innocence and experience. Joni's painterly influence on her compositions is in full evidence on both early LPs, from the Rembrandt browns of "Tin Angel" to the bright golds and yellows of "Chelsea Morning." The experience of innocence: as difficult a concept as the child being father to the man. 

Side note: Bill and Hillary Clinton would go on to name their daughter, Chelsea, after the Mitchell track.

We are the first generation to see the clouds from both sides.      - Saul Bellow