Thursday, 8 September 2011

Joni Mitchell - Song To A Seagull

Joni: my teenage heroin.

Some might think I misspelled the word heroine in my sub-title: I didn't.

As a teenager I discovered Joni Mitchell through some cassettes my parents had. One in particular featured a compilation of various Joni tracks. I became utterly addicted to this cassette, listening to it compulsively for years. Then, under the pretext of buying my mum birthday and christmas presents, I began to amass what was, in reality, my own collection of Joni's brillliant albums.

Joni developed an amazing guitar technique, partially as a means of coping with having had polio as a child, and the picking and strumming you hear on Hejira and elsewhere is already evident here, along with the harp like arpeggios and unusual tunings. This album is notable in her oeuvre for being almost entirely stripped down to just Joni's voice and guitars, as was her next one, the equally brilliant albeit better known Clouds. There's almost no piano at all - the only piano I can hear is a rather jangly honky tonk part, mixed low in the background of 'Night In The City' - which might seem surprising to those who know Joni best from such albums as Blue. This pared down approach really works superbly well. Thank goodness for David Crosby's sympathetic and sensitive production: Joni is neither drowned in syrupy orchestral settings, nor bolted onto a rock group, to make her more 'now', as so frequently happened elsewhere in popular music!

I have to confess that as much as I still love this music, I can't listen to it as much as I once did. I could quote the magnificent opener 'I Had A King' - "I can't go back there anymore" - but fortunately it's not quite that bad! One reason for this is that this music is so incredibly potent, and, for me at any rate, brings out certain melancholy associations. But I believe that this 'saudade' is actually inherent, even in the harmonies, never mind the lyrics. In recent times this tendency towards the maudlin has made latter-day Joni seem bitter, even sour, at times. But here, as she starts out, the sheer beauty and power is simply enchanting and compelling.

And, as she was keen to point out from the outset, she's no ordinary 'folkie'. She saw herself as a poet, artist and composer, and indeed she was all three. Her lyrics are often beautiful poetry that stands well alone, her cover artworks adorn many of her albums, and are always endearing, engaging, and apt for the records (this particular album's original artwork isn't her best, but it does have a certain period charm), and her music, well, as the title of this review suggests, it's dangerously, powerfully, addictive.

My personal favourites from this album are 'I Had A King', 'Michael From The Mountains', 'Marcie', 'Nathan La Franeer', 'Sisowtowbell Lane', 'The Dawntreader', 'Song To A Seagull', 'Cactus Tree' ... ummm ... As you can see, pretty much the whole album is, to my mind, sublime. Only the slightly more upbeat 'Night In The City' doesn't quite ring true for me, and 'The Pirate Of Penance', pure gold by common standards, is, in Joni's elevated canon, a little too mannered, or 'clever', for my tastes. On her next album she pulls off upbeat ('Chelsea Morning') and clever ('Songs To Ageing Children Come') much more successfully.

For me track one alone, 'I Had A King', would make this album worth having. Joni has said elsewhere that she views her own early work as that of an 'ingénue', and it's certainly true that she matured and broadened her scope in multifarious ways as she progressed. But nevertheless, for a first album this is jaw-droppingly brilliant. Even if the lyrics of 'I Had A King' do display a youthful preoccupation with fashion fabrics - "drip-dry and paisley", "leather and lace" - there's also poetic genius ("I had a king, in a salt-rusted carriage / Who carried me off, to his country for marriage too soon / Beware of the power of moons"), amazing insight for one so young, and musical prowess that, through singularity of melodic and harmonic conception, really make her music stand out from the crowd, then and now. And, as noted earlier, nearly all of this massively underrated album comes up to the high standard of this incredibly strong opener.

Another very strong example of her formidable creative powers is 'Nathan La Franeer': expanded from the observations of a cab ride, it becomes a universal paean to loneliness and alienation, and portrays the urban experience in a way that I, as an ex-Londoner, can all too readily identify with, and yet, all the while, it remains a thing of profound hair-raising beauty. This song also features a wailing noise, credited as a 'banshee', which sounds, just as it should, like a wailing female spirit portending death!

Joni Mitchell is, as far as I'm concerned, the greatest female singer-songwriter and poet/composer there has ever been. Only Brazil's Joyce Moreno comes anywhere near her (they share initials: what a strikingly odd, if perhaps meaningless, coincidence!). This is the first nugget mined from a very long, rich vein of musical gold, and for me it's a treasure whose worth is way beyond mere monetary value. Priceless and essential.

Joni playing 'I Had A King', live. You can hear her tuning her guitar before she starts. Joni is infamous for her use of many and varied alternative tunings, which are of course very much bound up with her very distinctive melodic and harmonic style.

Lyrics: I reproduce here the lyrics to track one, 'I Had A King', one of my favourites from this stunning album:

I had a king in a tenement castle

Lately he's taken to painting the pastel walls brown

He's taken the curtains down

He's swept with the broom of contempt

And the rooms have an empty ring

He's cleaned with the tears

Of an actor who fears for the laughter's sting

I can't go back there anymore

You know my keys won't fit the door

You know my thoughts don't fit the man

They never can they never can

I had a king dressed in drip-dry and paisley

Lately he's taken to saying I'm crazy and blind

He lives in another time

Ladies in gingham still blush

While he sings them of wars and wine

But I in my leather and lace

I can never become that kind

I can't go back there anymore

You know my keys won't fit the door

You know my thoughts don't fit the man

They never can they never can

I had a king in a salt-rusted carriage

Who carried me off to his country for marriage too soon

Beware of the power of moons

There's no one to blame

No there's no one to name as a traitor here

The king's on the road

And the queen's in the grove till the end of the year

I can't go back there anymore

You know my keys won't fit the door

You know my thoughts don't fit the man

They never can they never can

© 1968; Siquomb Publishing Company

Credits: (adapted from the entry on this album)

David Crosby - Producer

Art Cryst - Engineer

Lee Keefer - Banshee

Joni Mitchell - Cover Art, Guitar, Vocals, Banshee

Mark Roth - Photography

Stephen Stills - Bass, Guitar

Ed Thrasher - Art Direction

1 comment:

Jimmy said...

<3 Joni's music. A real classical performer, wish more people would know about it!

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