An album that opens with a song about a divorce and closes with a song about freedom promises to tell an interesting story, and that is exactly what Joni Mitchell’s debut delivers. Produced by David Crosby, a huge fan of Joni’s songs, the album’s simple instrumentation belies the complex stories the songs tell. A genuine artist even from the beginning of her career, Joni has said that the songs on her debut are classical songs played with folk instruments. The unusual construction of the songs and the way vocals are used to represent various classical instruments were novel concepts at the time of the album’s release in 1968. Divided into two halves, with the first side titled “I Came to City” and the flip called “Out of the City and Down to the Seaside”, it was a true concept album.
Opener “I Had a King” provides some detail into the dissolution of Joni’s marriage to Chuck Mitchell, her former singing partner: “I can’t go back there anymore/You know my keys don’t fit the door/You know my thoughts don’t fit the man/They never can, they never can”. The sweet “Michael From Mountains” follows, telling the story of a love that flourishes despite the mystery that exists between the two partners. It would become one of Joni’s early classics. The rest of the “City” section contains paeans to city life (“Night in the City”) a story of urban isolation (“Marcie”) and a story about a very bitter cabbie (“Nathan La Freneer”).
The “Seaside” portion of the album takes place after the break, when the captivity the narrator somewhat enjoyed has been disintegrated. Learning to make her way in the world alone, she explores her new surroundings in songs like “Sisotowbell Lane”, “The Dawntreader” and “Pirate of Penance”. In the title track, she mourns the loss of the freedom she originally had: “My gentle relations have names they must call me/For loving the freedom of all flying things/My dreams with the seagulls fly/Out of reach, out of cry”.
The album’s final song, “Cactus Tree”, is one of Joni’s truest classics. The story of a woman who enjoys the company of several different men over the course of her life’s seasons, it was one of the first songs to suggest that women, too, could view life as a journey. The concept of a “journeyman” had previously been applied exclusively to men; Joni turned the concept on its head by pointing out that men were not the only ones who could be complex, intelligent, ever-changing beings.
Joni insisted upon giving her audience all-new songs for her debut, even though other artists had already covered some of her songs (“Both Sides Now”, “The Circle Game”, and “Chelsea Morning”) with great commercial success. She would hold on to her famous songs and record her own versions of them later. She seemed to know that she wouldn’t need them to get the attention of the world, and indeed she didn’t: Song to a Seagull announced to the world that Joni Mitchell had arrived. With its colorful cover— painted by Joni herself—and the printed lyrics telling stories of the freedom found by the characters within, an entirely new lifestyle was subsequently available to young women. And with that announcement, Joni Mitchell went on to make immeasurably significant contributions to music and culture that continue to this day.