Joni Mitchell fiercely announced her independence with “I Had a King,” the haunting soliloquy which opens her 1968 debut album, Song to a Seagull. “I can’t go back there anymore,” she proclaimed. “You know my keys won’t fit the door/You know my thoughts don’t fit the man. They never can…they never can…” The song is bold, wise, and flecked with a graceful equanimity as the singer declares her freedom both from a husband who “lives in another time” and the societal constraints of the day. That freedom would be forcefully expressed on the albums that followed, the first three of which have been collected along with Song to a Seagull on The Reprise Albums (1968-1971), a beautiful new box set from Rhino under the Joni Mitchell Archives banner.
Song to a Seagull, produced by David Crosby and newly remixed here by Matt Lee under Mitchell’s supervision, might be the biggest revelation on a set which culminates in the artist’s acknowledged masterwork Blue. Though Seagull is very much a formative album by a burgeoning talent, it finds the young Mitchell tweaking the conventions of folk. Lyrically, she pointed the way towards the “confessional” singer-songwriter movement. Melodically, she didn’t stint on sophisticated chord progressions and compositional complexity even as Crosby smartly kept the production intimate – just Mitchell’s voice, guitars, and (occasionally) piano, with Stephen Stills dropping in to play the supple bass of the atmospheric “Night in the City.” That’s one of the more elaborate productions here, with its rollicking keys and multitracked vocals. Another is “The Pirate of Penance,” a story-song presented as a musical dialogue with Mitchell singing both parts.
Mitchell didn’t opt to include any of the songs she had successfully proffered to other artists such as “Urge for Going,” “The Circle Game,” and “Chelsea Morning,” but she filled both sides of Song to a Seagull – subtitled I came to the city and Out of the city and down to the seaside – with equally poignant fare: character studies (“Marcie,” “Nathan La Franeer”), evocative depictions of the urban (“Night in the City”), the pastoral (“Sistowbell Lane,” later memorably covered by Cass Elliot in a recording that remained vaulted until 2005), and the dreamlike (“The Dawntreader”), and even a love song (“Michael from Mountains”).
The album’s title song epitomizes Mitchell’s gifts as formed at that stage. The concept of being free as a bird was hardly new, but her treatment of it was. She personalized the theme, juxtaposing imagery of the carefree bird’s flight (“Fly silly seabird/No dreams can possess you/No voices can blame you/For sun on your wings…”) with her own life in the concrete jungle (“I came to the city/And lived like old Crusoe/On an island of noise/In a cobblestone sea/And the beaches were concrete…”). But there’s more to her observations. She’s remarkably clear-eyed when she travels “out of the city and down to the seaside/To sun and my shoulders and wind on my hair.” It’s not all beautiful: “But sandcastles crumble/And hunger is human/And humans are hungry/For worlds they can’t share.” The songwriter strikes a universal chord of yearning: “My dreams with the seagulls fly/Out of reach, out of cry.”
In both the album’s original mix and the new one, the emphasis is on the singer and her storytelling. Mitchell and Crosby resisted any temptation to add fashionably baroque orchestrations, preferring to let the songs speak for themselves with subtle studio enhancement. There’s a noticeably different vocal quality, though, on many of the remixed tracks including “The Dawntreader” and “Pirate of Penance” – less delicate, more awash in reverb. That tends to make the tracks sound less intimate, although it’s difficult to wholly sever the connection of the artist to the listener.
Song to a Seagull comes to a close with “Cactus Tree.” The ballad about the many suitors of a woman resistant to romantic overtures (“She’s so busy being free…”) delves further into the themes explored in “I Had a King” and “Song to a Seagull,” with the subject torn between the desire for love and the need for freedom. While written in the third person, the song has long been taken as semi-autobiography, with David Crosby even identifying himself as the sailor in the first verse. Mitchell wasn’t necessarily singing “I” in these songs, but she was already sharing much of herself – and consequently giving voice to the inner thoughts of so many listening. This path would culminate in the emotionally raw Blue.
But first…”I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,” goes Mitchell’s arguably most famous song. “Both Sides Now” inspired the title of the singer-songwriter’s sophomore album, 1969’s Clouds. Underneath a striking self-portrait, Clouds balanced the light and the dark. She helmed all but one of the album’s songs herself, and played the spare, guitar-based instrumentation with an occasional assist once again from Stephen Stills. The result was warmer than Song to a Seagull if still in a folk-inspired vein.
The lone track on which Mitchell collaborated with an outside producer – in this case, Paul A. Rothchild (The Doors, Janis Joplin) – is the austere opening “Tin Angel.” It’s one of the album’s vivid evocations of romance. Set to a winding, elongated melody, its lyrics conjure mementos of past loves as the narrator contemplates a new one. A similar hesitation is explored in the gorgeous “I Don’t Know Where I Stand,” another so-called “confessional” track (“Telephone, even the sound of your voice is still new/All alone in California and talking to you/And feeling too foolish and strange to say the words that I had planned/I guess it’s too early, ’cause I don’t know where I stand”). Its elegant, deceptive simplicity later attracted Barbra Streisand (who recorded it on 1971’s Stoney End). “That Song About the Midway” is another stunner, a farewell to a rakish paramour. “The Gallery” turns the tables on another.
Yet Clouds‘ themes are, by and large, wide-ranging. Mitchell conjures an ominous atmosphere on “Roses Blue,” about a woman dabbling in the occult, but is decidedly down to earth with the a cappella “The Fiddle and the Drum” and its plea for peace in Vietnam-era America. Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien inspired the self-examining “I Think I Understand,” an opaque rumination on the nature of fear’s hold on a mind – and overcoming same.
The album’s two most overtly “pop” songs, “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides Now,” had both been recorded by other artists including (most notably) Judy Collins before the May 1969 release of Clouds. But that doesn’t diminish the power of Mitchell’s own interpretations. She’s carefree, unfettered, and joyful on the former, and deliberate and reflective on the latter. Collins’ hit version soared at a faster tempo where Mitchell’s is somewhat halting, honest, and utterly authentic to its author. If those songs represent the early Joni at her most accessible, “Songs to Aging Children Come” resides at the opposite end of the spectrum with its poetic, impressionistic words accompanied by a twisty, shifting melody and unusual harmonies.
Producer-singer-songwriter Mitchell expanded her sonic palette to deliver her first (but not last) era-defining LP with 1970’s Ladies of the Canyon. The canyon in question was Laurel, earlier celebrated on an album by Jackie DeShannon in 1968. While the earliest songs on Ladies dated to 1966 – including the sweetly sentimental “The Circle Game,” then already recorded by Ian and Sylvia, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Rush, and others – the album wasn’t only her most accessible to that point but reflected a growing maturity. The warm, inviting, and joyous title track was inspired by Mitchell’s real-life friendship with her fellow ladies of the Canyon, cartoonist Trina Robbins, “circus girl” Estrella Berosini, and the cake, brownie, and bread-baking Annie Burden. Their stories are among the beguiling narratives presented over the album’s 45 minutes.
Just after the bucolic opening of “Morning Morgantown,” Mitchell introduced the sound of the piano on “For Free.” The more prominent use of the instrument throughout the LP moved her one step further from folk and to what would become recognized as the realm of singer-songwriter pop-rock. It also gave her new avenues of melody and arrangement to travel. The songwriter’s keen observational eye was as sharp as ever on this lilting, exquisitely-rendered portrait of a street musician later recorded by Petula Clark, The Byrds, and Bette Midler (whose studio rendition remains unreleased, though affecting live performances circulate). Paul Horn’s clarinet both illustrates the character of the musician portrayed in the song and add a new dimension to a Mitchell album; Horn was joined on the LP by Teresa Adams on cello, Jim Horn on baritone saxophone, and Milt Holland on percussion.
As well as taking chances compositionally and instrumentally (those alternate tunings!), Ladies of the Canyon varied its moods and themes from variations on the many faces of love (the snapshot of a would-be love triangle, “Conversation,” with its swinging woodwinds anticipating Mitchell’s more explicitly jazz-based explorations; “Willy,” Mitchell’s reflection on her then-current relationship with Graham Nash; or the haunting “The Arrangement,” inspired by Elia Kazan’s film version of his novel of the same title) to broader concerns such as ecology (the bouncy, playful “Big Yellow Taxi,” Mitchell’s first charting single).
The enigmatic “The Priest” and “Blue Boy” left their meanings open to interpretation just as the incisive and vividly-drawn “Woodstock” again demonstrated how Mitchell could turn real life into sheer poetry. She wasn’t at the festival on Yasgur’s farm, but from her hotel room crafted the ultimate elegy for that moment in time. Her moody, spare, and quietly intense recording, set to electric piano accompaniment, would be transformed by her friends Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young into a gritty rock anthem. (Note that CSNY’s version was actually released one month before Joni’s.) But there’s beauty in this stark interpretation with darkness lurking around the edges.
With its tinges of jazz, deft melding of reality and poetry, and Mitchell’s increased mastery of songwriting, arrangement, and production, Ladies of the Canyon set the stage for Blue (1971). Mitchell turned her artistry fully inward for an act of stunning musical self-reflection. Upon hearing the original album, Kris Kristofferson famously quipped “Save something for yourself, Joni!” The quote is even repeated in Brandi Carlile’s incisive liner notes to the box set. But it’s still apt. Blue laid Mitchell’s soul bare on two sides of vinyl, and listeners were all the richer for it. “Confessional” is too pat for this justly-acclaimed work that finds the sweet spot between sadness and joy, the tender and the tough, loneliness and love.
Beginning with the sweet, lilting stream of consciousness of “All I Want” (“I want to talk to you/I want to shampoo you/I want to renew you again and again/Applause, applause/Life is our cause/When I think of your kisses, my mind see-saws”), Blue revels in the removal of any distance between artist and audience. Having built her sound up, she tore it back down to create an album as musically focused as it is lyrically. Mitchell played piano, guitar, and dulcimer throughout, joined by her then-boyfriend James Taylor, Russ Kunkel, “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow, and the returning Stephen Stills on a handful of tracks.
Blue chronicled the flourishing and final days of her relationship with Graham Nash on “My Old Man” and “River,” respectively. The former finds the singer dealing in cheerful metaphors (“He’s my sunshine in the morning/He’s my fireworks at the end of the day/He’s the warmest chord I ever heard…”) while the latter ravishingly expresses the longing for escape (“I wish I had a river I could skate away on”) as tinged with palpable regret (“I’m so hard to handle/I’m selfish and I’m sad/Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby/That I ever had…”). In the years since Blue‘s release, “River” has become a bona fide Christmas standard recorded by everybody from Barry Manilow to Olivia Rodrigo; while the holiday setting may seem somewhat incidental, the song captures the bittersweet feelings experienced by so many during the Christmas season. Nash also reportedly inspired the intoxicating “A Case of You.” Once again, the lyrics revealed a profound truth. “I could drink a case of you, and still be on my feet,” she asserts. She’s expressing her love in a deep, even sanctified manner, but if cast aside, she acknowledges that she will, no doubt, survive.
Seemingly few facets of Mitchell’s life went unexplored. “Little Green” (which dated back to 1967) is a devastating reflection on the daughter the artist gave up for adoption. “Blue” uses blunt language (“Acid, booze, and ass/Needles, guns, and grass/Lots of laughs, lots of laughs/Everybody’s saying that hell’s the hippest way to go/Well, I don’t think so…”) and a stately, piano-led melody to plead for the survival and salvation of a troubled soul, perhaps James Taylor: “Blue, I love you,” she sings with little equivocation. It’s a powerful statement on an album filled with them.
There’s joyful abandon in “Carey,” based on a real person, Cary Raditz, with whom Mitchell spent time in Greece following her breakup with Nash. Though Stills added bass and acoustic guitar, Joni’s dulcimer defined the song’s memorable sonic signature. The character of Carey recurs in “California,” another of the album’s brightest moments. Both “Carey” and “California” are two of the four tracks on the LP to feature Taylor’s subtle guitar.
There’s “conceptual continuity” between “A Case of You” and the album’s closer, “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” The song is a rumination on the push-pull between the cynic and the romantic, two aspects that surely exist within Mitchell’s persona. “Listen, they sing of love so sweet, love so sweet/When you gonna get yourself back on your feet?” she asks. By stripping away all pretense and further liberating the language of pop, Mitchell established a new high watermark for the singer-songwriter genre. She intuited that the secret to universality isn’t writing vaguely or generally; instead, it’s writing with specificity. On Blue, Joni Mitchell gave voice to experiences and emotions shared by countless others.
The Reprise Albums (1968-1971), produced by Joni and Rhino’s Patrick Milligan, is a welcome addition to the Joni Mitchell Archives series. While the packaging is more compact than its companion rarities boxes, the design is nonetheless impressive. The four CDs are housed in individual, Japanese-style (that is to say, slightly oversized and of heavier stock) gatefold replica jackets with lyrics in the gatefolds. The discs themselves are protected in white inner sleeves. The albums are contained within a sturdy slipcase featuring a self-portrait of the artist. A four-panel foldout insert contains Brandi Carlile’s liner notes. It’s a treat to read one singer-songwriter’s knowing appreciation of another. Bernie Grundman has subtly remastered all four discs with an ear for detail in both the singer’s vocals and instrumentation, making for true sonic upgrades of the past U.S. CDs. (The set is also available on vinyl and digitally.)
“Oh, California, I’m coming home,” Mitchell ebulliently sang on Blue. “Oh, make me feel good, rock ‘n roll band, I’m your biggest fan.” With this archival release filled with the sound of SoCal (by way of Canada) singer-songwriter pop, Joni has treated her biggest fans to something to make them feel good, indeed.