[17 July 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
To those who aren’t familiar with the nearly six-decades-long career of Canada’s Ian Tyson, it might seem like hyperbole to say that Tyson is Canada’s ultimate musical legend. It isn’t. Without Tyson, there very well might not be a Canadian music industry. No Gordon Lightfoot (who Tyson mentored in Lightfoot’s early years), no Neil Young, no Joni Mitchell. Perhaps no Juno Awards and no Polaris Prise. Maybe no Arcade Fire for that matter, either. Ian Tyson, as one half of the early ‘60s folk duo Ian and Sylvia, wrote what could be considered to be Canada’s first pop anthem in “Four Strong Winds”, a timeless song that feels much older than it actually is and seems almost “traditional” somehow. It’s a song that has, among listeners of a certain age, become something of a Canadian treasure: the unofficial national anthem, if you will. CBC Radio listeners named it as Canada’s No. 1 song of the 20th Century, and rightfully so. In my mind, “Four Strong Winds” could very well just be really the start of Canadian pop music: an iconic song that marks the beginning of a fledgling national music industry in much the same way that “Rock Around the Clock” is generally considered to be the official start of rock ‘n’ roll as a cultural phenomenon in America. I can’t think of a single popular song in Canada written by a Canadian predating “Four Strong Winds” that had such a profound impact on the nation’s psyche. (Not counting “O Canada”, of course.) Really, if you’re a young, struggling Canadian musician (or even a music fan) and meet Tyson walking down the streets of Alberta, his home province, you pretty much owe him the shirt off your back for what he did with that one song.
However, Tyson’s career isn’t just limited to “Four Strong Winds” and his songwriting and romantic partnership with Sylvia Fricker (whom he eventually married and then later divorced). With Sylvia, he was part of a group called Great Speckled Bird that helped to pioneer a country-rock fusion sound alongside the likes of Gram Parsons. He was the host of his own Canadian variety musical TV show in the early ‘70s. And that’s not all. He’s recently penned an autobiography and has three honorary Doctorates. He’s also a member of the Order of Canada. And, aside from his career as a musician, he additionally has been a rancher for much of his life, making him something of a modern-day cowboy. Clearly, even though Tyson is now 78 years old, he has had a robust, varied and rich career, and has been oft covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Young. And now, Tyson returns to the stage with his 14th album of solo material. The dude is certainly not showing any signs of resting on his laurels as he enters his twilight years, though that might be a bit troubling considering some of the adversity he’s pulled through recently. You see, Tyson has lost his singing voice after he damaged his vocal cords at an outdoor music festival in 2006 where he was playing against a bass-heavy and loud soundboard, and his pipes were further strained by a lengthy bout of the flu he endured the following year. That makes listening to Tyson’s newest release, Raven Singer, a bit of a challenge for listeners.
While musically the album is a dazzling country album with flashes of rock here and there, as well as the presence of traditional instruments such as the bagpipes, as heard on “Blueberry Susan”, it is also hard to sometimes listen to with Tyson’s so-called “new voice” leading the fore. At times, Tyson comes off as sounding like Leonard Cohen after a nightlong alcoholic bender, and much of his vitality has been robbed: here, he doesn’t just sound like he’s 78; he sometimes sounds as though he’s virtually on his deathbed with a gravelly rasp and rattle that barely holds his compositions together. He even sings at one point here that “I am damaged cargo” without much irony. Listeners might be of two minds about this: on one hand, you can certainly appreciate and applaud Tyson’s decision to keep making music and singing songs as he’s always done, bum voice or no, and delight in the fact that the man is rising to the challenges that life has thrown his way recently with a certain kind of understated grace. However, on the other hand, you have to worry a bit about Tyson and whether or not his decision to keep singing, even on a new register, might damage himself even further, and the thought will probably cross your mind listening to Raven Singer, as it did mine, that Tyson would be better served moving into a new musical partnership with a vocalist who can handle the demands of performing, and let him just rest his vox a bit and focus more squarely on his guitar playing instead. Indeed, by the time you get to the album’s final track, the instrumental “The Yellow Dress”, you find yourself feeling glad that he’s chosen to give his voice a chance to recover.
Still, if you can get past Tyson’s haggard pipes, Raven Singer has a lot to offer in terms of seemingly autobiographical detail and character sketches. The aforementioned “Blueberry Susan” is about Tyson’s songwriting mentors and influences, and people he’s played with that have now passed on. Here, he bellygazes at his own mortality by noting that “someday we may meet again / out among the stars.” Meanwhile, “Saddle Bronc Girl” is a painting of a head-strong woman who works the rodeo and rides a bronco cheekily named “No GST” (a not-so-subtle dig at the federal sales tax in Canada) and, elsewhere, Tyson turns his attention to more worldly pursuits, such as “Rio Colorado”, where he gets a chance to ride the white water rapids of the titular river on a new horse, “Under African Skies”, which recounts an encounter with a lover in Morocco, and the Jimmy Buffet sound-a-like “Back to Baja”, which is a love letter to a town in Mexico. The songs themselves, while not overly flashy, are a welcome balm from the traditional New Country music dominating the airwaves about getting drunk, chasing women and fixing your pick-up. There’s a certain maturity to Tyson’s songs, well in keeping with his age, and they feel like they could have come out of any era of country music from the past 30 years or so. In fact, there’s a certain amount of vividness to this material in that, on strictly musical terms, it holds up against much of Tyson’s younger brethren very well. Raven Singer isn’t the sound of a musician trying to capitalize on past glories in so much as trying to sound almost contemporary, and, by and large, it works.
Still, Raven Singer is a bit of a hard album to critically appraise, for the tricky business of Tyson’s lost voice mentioned above. Music should move people and entertain them in equal measure, and it is a bit hard to be entertained by Tyson here as he struggles to wheeze out his lyrics. For that reason, Raven Singer is probably best suited to long-time fans who can look past Tyson’s new vocal range and simply be satisfied to have new music from Canada’s preeminent musical marvel. New fans whom are curious about Tyson’s work might be better served, sad to say, by starting at the very beginning of his Ian and Sylvia roots and move forward from there. Raven Singer, you see, seems to be a portrait of an icon whom is now a mere husk of what he once was. The songs are generally solid, but that once booming voice is now shaky and barely there. Raven Singer isn’t a pathetic record by any stretch, but it is a bit sad to listen to, realizing that Tyson’s glory days and glorious voice are now well behind him. He still has the ability to spin a good yarn, but in a very wispy fashion. If you can overlook the fact that Tyson, though he still tries to be youthful in his old age, is simply a victim of the sands of time, Raven Singer will offer a bounty for you. However, what people will remember Tyson for is probably not how he rode out into the sunset, but for a few strong winds he penned very early on in his career. For that, perhaps Tyson has simply earned the right to do whatever he darn well pleases, awkward voice be damned, and Raven Singer is just ultimately proof of that.