Today’s a day my most loyal readers never thought would come — the kickoff of a series on the legendary Joni Mitchell. A few weeks ago, I promised a Mitchell deep dive in 2021, so I figured there’s no time like the present.
I have long resisted Mitchell’s work, despite its groundbreaking nature, because I’m not a fan of her voice. Specifically, there’s a nasal sliding sound she makes on some of her songs that irritates me.
But I admit that’s a silly reason to dismiss a career that spanned four decades and inspired countless other performers, including some of my very favorites. It’s no different than some fool turning his back on Bob Dylan’s output over the vocals. And Mitchell’s voice is better than Dylan’s, I think we can all agree.
So I’m going into this exercise with an open mind and open ears. And I’m going in hard. I plan to listen to and write about all 19 of Mitchell’s studio albums, from 1968’s Song to a Seagull to 2007’s Shine.
That’s right… it’s a month of Mitchell!
Song to a Seagull was Mitchell’s debut, though she had already written some of her most celebrated songs and seen them recorded by other people. Interestingly, none of those tracks appear on this album.
Produced by David Crosby, this is a collection of delicate acoustic folk songs that only hint at the formal experimentation to come. Upon first listen, the album struck me as a bit boring, but as I spent more time with the songs I found a lot to like.
Everything here is very pretty, but final track ‘Cactus Tree’ is the one that really knocked me out. Speaking of Dylan, ‘Cactus Tree’ reminds me of his early style, only tricked out with ethereal guitars and a truly beautiful vocal performance.
I guess I’m on to something. Before debuting this track, Mitchell told an audience that she was inspired after watching the Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back. She said she’d never been influenced by Dylan’s songwriting before, but that was about to change.
Other highlights from Song to a Seagull: ‘I Had a King,’ ‘Night in the City,’ ‘Sisotowbell Lane,’ and the title track. But really, everything here is strong, and this is a debut album that promises great things ahead.
In a decade full of dreams
And he takes her to a schooner
And he treats her like a queen
Bearing beads from California
With their amber stones and green
He has called her from the harbor
He has kissed her with his freedom
He has heard her off to starboard
In the breaking and the breathing
Of the water weeds
While she was busy being free
There’s a man who’s climbed a mountain
And he’s calling out her name
And he hopes her heart can hear
Three thousand miles he calls again
He can think her there beside him
He can miss her just the same
He has missed her in the forest
While he showed her all the flowers
And the branches sang the chorus
As he climbed the scaley towers
Of a forest tree
While she was somewhere being free
There’s a man who’s sent a letter
And he’s waiting for reply
He has asked her of her travels
Since the day they said goodbye
He writes “Wish you were beside me
We can make it if we try”
He has seen her at the office
With her name on all his papers
Thru the sharing of the profits
He will find it hard to shake her
From his memory
And she’s so busy being free
There’s a lady in the city
And she thinks she loves them all
There’s the one who’s thinking of her
There’s the one who sometimes calls
There’s the one who writes her letters
With his facts and figures scrawl
She has brought them to her senses
They have laughed inside her laughter
Now she rallies her defenses
For she fears that one will ask her
And she’s so busy being free
There’s a man who sends her medals
He is bleeding from the war
There’s a jouster and a jester
And a man who owns a store
There’s a drummer and a dreamer
And you know there may be more
She will love them when she sees them
They will lose her if they follow
And she only means to please them
And her heart is full and hollow
Like a cactus tree
While she’s so busy being free