The sensitive male singer-songwriter was a trope of the early 1970s. Artists such as Cat Stevens, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne became popular by turning down the volume that had taken over rock and roll, playing acoustic guitars, replacing political and social concerns with personal ones, and presenting images of nature over urban reflections. The success of this style became its biggest enemy as the new tradition became the old orthodoxy to be rebelled against. By the end of the decade, the peaceful Neil Young of After the Gold Rush and Harvest became the punk radical of Rust Never Sleeps—and this is just one of many examples of the shift in musical tastes.
While soft singer-songwriters never completely disappeared (John Mayer, Damien Rice, David Gray), they were seen as retro artists rather than cutting edge. Enough time has passed since the original heyday that such material again has gained its cachet as iconoclastic. John Vincent III’s Songs for the Canyon serves as a prime example of this style of music. The record’s quiet literateness would fit right in with the classic singer-songwriter albums of the past. The title recalls that Joni Mitchell‘s Ladies of the Canyon and individual song names, such as “On and On” and “Rolling Stone”, are reminiscent of classics from past decades.
In the current popular spirit when looking ahead seems all the rage, Vincent’s lyrics seem fresh while evoking past masters. Sure, the details have changed. Today, one is riding in cars listening to Bruce Springsteen instead of Chuck Berry, looking for somebody to love doesn’t mean a hookup, and the scenery has transformed from mountains and oceans to backroads outside of town. The similarities between Vincent’s material and past chestnuts make the contemporary music seem fresh. The dozen tracks on Songs for the Canyon come across as new by seeming old.
While 1970s singer-songwriters were frequently made fun of in the larger culture for being wimpy in terms of how they connected to women, they still saw themselves as manly in the traditional sense of the word. They didn’t want to hurt you, but sometimes a man had to do what a man has to do. Besides, it’s a wild world out there and women had to be careful of bad men. Vincent’s protagonists haven’t evolved much. They don’t want to make their women cry, and a babe is all they really need on songs such as “Highway Woman” and “That’s Just the Way It Is, Babe”. The characters’ sensitivity may make them seem less sexist, but this seems a distinction without a difference.
Vincent often sings in a high-pitched voice with a whispery edge. On songs such as “When She Leaves”, “Juniper and Yellow”, and “Dandelion”, his delicate delivery suggests deep feelings. Vincent’s declared weakness is a source of strength. He is powered, if not overpowered, by love. That adds to his narrators’ charms. Who doesn’t love a lover? One’s appreciation of Songs for the Canyon is contingent on how much one values romantic sentiments. They may seem cloying or consistent. That depends on the listener. Vincent proclaims that love is central to his life and offers these songs as proof.