Canadian singer-songwriter Sylvia Tyson is a legend because of her pioneering work during the “great folk scare” (as Pete Seeger famously called it) during the late 1950s and early 1960s. As the female half of Ian & Sylvia, she helped popularize emerging talents such as Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot by recording their songs before the original composers had contracts. Ian & Sylvia also wrote their own material, including “Four Strong Winds” (which Neil Young said was a significant influence on him as a teen and that he recorded on his classic 1978 album Comes a Time) and “You Were on My Mind” (which was a number three pop hit for the We Five in 1965). The duo were the central focus of Christopher Guest’s mockumentary A Mighty Wind, parodied as Mitch and Mickey.
Ian & Sylvia broke up, musically and maritally, at the end of the 1960s and pursued separate careers. Ian became a real-life cowboy and sang about life on the ranch. He died last year. Sylvia released a small number of well-received albums. Her songs were more cosmopolitan in nature. The music was cabaret in style, sophisticated in the old-world sense. Her songs told stories, frequently tales of love, that were both happy and sad. She founded her own label and co-wrote a book about songwriting called And Then I Wrote.
Sylvia Tyson recently celebrated her 83rd birthday by launching her first studio album in over ten years. She’s announced that this will be her final one. She’s going out with a bang! The dozen tracks on At the End of the Day reveal a thoughtful romantic with a heart full of spit and fire. The album is theatrical in the highest sense. One can imagine Tyson performing this material at a club where laughter and liquor are poured in equal portions, and that tear in the waitstaff’s eye is real.
The individual cuts mostly concern the love of family, friends, and significant others, the love that got away, the one that never happened, and the one that calls itself something else. There’s even a “Cynical Little Love Song” that sarcastically notes, “Love’s a dance in the dark at best / It flies / Then it dies / And the world goes on unimpressed.” Don’t you believe it, Tyson notes in her other songs. The fact that she cynically expresses disbelief in love only shows she’s susceptible to it.
Sylvia Tyson knows we live in troubled times. Her music reminds us of our shared private feelings. The songs are confessional. This is a song of herself. Presumably, the octogenarian is older than her listeners. As the record’s title informs us, she sees things from the perspective of one nearing the end of one’s days. That doesn’t mean she’s signing off. On the first song, “Sweet Agony”, Tyson announces she’s ready to gamble at love again. The prospect of pleasure is worth the pain.
Tyson’s voice has a gentle rasp. This suggests the wisdom of experience as she recalls past affairs. The musical accompaniment is purposely quiet to showcase the singer’s ability to twist a word or syllable so it has more than one meaning. Less is often more, as the gypsy accordion or a Cajun fiddle sets the mood without being showy so that Tyson’s voice remains the focus. Her performance remains center stage.
What does she have to tell us? What have the decades taught her? Her philosophy is best summarized in “No Crowd, No Show”. The message may be cryptic, but its mournful quality stands out. The song ends with the tattooed lady putting on her clothes. No one wants to watch. Turn off the lights. The show is over.
At the End of the Day ends with the instrumental “Janet’s Garden”. There may be nothing else to say, but it is a lovely, quiet but spirited tune. The melody is comforting enough to remind one that life is worth living.