Though some of the material on Song to a Seagull sounds dated, much of it has a primordial depth that made it then, and still makes it now, one of the most auspicious debuts of any songwriter.
By the time Joni Mitchell’s first album Song to a Seagull was released in 1968, it seemed that she had already lived several lives.
As a child, she had moved with her family from town to town in western Canada, following her father to the air force bases in which he was stationed and finally ending up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Musically, she had played local clubs in Saskatoon, then in Calgary, where she had moved to pursue art school, then in Toronto, trying to join the city’s local folk scene. In these years, she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, which she put up for adoption. She married Chuck Mitchell in 1965 (hence her last name), separated just a few years later, and played around the Midwest and the East Coast, gaining notoriety for her striking voice and unusual guitar style. Songs she had written began being covered by Tom Rush, Judy Collins, Buffy Sainte-Marie and others.
After a fortuitous encounter with David Crosby, Mitchell moved to Los Angeles, found a manager, and recorded her first album, with Crosby producing. In March 1968, her career as a recording artist began.
Though Mitchell had already written some of her most famous songs—“Chelsea Morning,” “Both Sides Now,” “The Circle Game,” “Urge for Going”—none of these songs appear on the album. Instead, we have 10 mostly unadorned tracks played almost entirely by Mitchell herself on guitar and piano, with Stephen Stills supplying bass on one track (“Night in the City”).
The album begins with the hypnotic and mysterious “I Had a King,” which sets the tone by being in a recognizably folk idiom but with hints of dissonance, haunting intonations and more abstract lyrics than one would expect to find in a folk song—“Beware of the power of moons,” she sings at one point.
“Night in the City,” courtesy of Stills’ bouncing bass and her more rhythmic strumming rather than plucking, is a livelier, more superficially entertaining song than many others on the album, though also admittedly a more conventional one as well. The core of the album seems to reside in the softer, more baroque character portraits like “Michael from Mountains,” “Marcie” and “Nathan La Franeer,” which show off Mitchell’s literary eye for detail and precocious command of melody. Though they do not yet have the truly arresting quality of her work to come, these songs nonetheless give one a keen, vibrant feel of what a sense of revelation must have accompanied early listens of her music.
The gems, in retrospect, are to be found on the second half of the album. Here, the listener finds the more prescient and visionary material, longer, more extended songs with meandering, counterintuitive melodies spiraling along with her oneiric lyrics, especially in “The Dawntreader.” The stand-out title track, now in retrospect, sounds like a kind of artistic manifesto—“Sandcastles crumble/ And hunger is human/ And humans are hungry/ For worlds they can’t share/ My dreams with the seagulls fly/ Out of reach, out of cry”—whereas closer “Cactus Tree” presages the kind of avant-folk-pop she would perfect on later albums like Ladies of the Canyon, among others.
The risk, with artists as innovative as Joni Mitchell, is that their own material eclipses itself, makes its earlier incarnations pale in comparison to the later masterpieces. Though some of the material on Song to a Seagull sounds dated, much of it has a primordial depth that made it then, and still makes it now, one of the most auspicious debuts of any songwriter living or dead.