The idea of Americana was always built on a false premise: that 21st century, or, for that matter, 20th century, music could be constrained by physical geography. On In This Town You’re Owned, Liverpool’s Robert Vincent has crafted a beautiful piece of Americana, with the trademark fiddles and plaintive acoustic strums, but also with an underlying sadness that will speak to anyone, no matter what continent they call home.
Singer/songwriter Vincent came to his sound via his father, who introduced the young Vincent to American country icons Waylon Jennings and Emmylou Harris. Perhaps Vincent gravitated toward those artists because he too has a larger-than-life voice that envelops tracks in feelings, almost like a hypnotic smoke. Or perhaps those artists inspired him to develop a powerful voice with an impressive emotional range, a veritable Meryl Streep with pipes.
The emotional range is a significant point. It’s not hard for an artist to sound sad. Just ask Morrissey. The skill lies in capturing the different kinds of sadness and using that as a sonic palette. So on “The Ending” when he sings of love, “It holds you / It feels you / Protects you / In times of pain,” over a lush bed of mandolin and accordion, he’s capturing a sadness of resignation, like someone trying to cheer themselves up. But on “Cuckoo” when he sings “It’s forgiveness that works in strange ways,” there’s a sadness that comes out of the possibility of redemption. The organ riffs support the vibe, giving the song the feeling of a particularly free-wheeling church service. And “Please Don’t Leave Me” features Vincent desperately pleading over a backing track that’s pretty, but also barely there, almost like when you subconsciously back away from someone as they go into the weeds with their personal mishigas.
Which isn’t to say that this is a one-note, depressing album. There are some up-tempo tunes, and while none have carefree unbridled joy, there’s nice energy throughout. “Conundrum” bounces along, banjo rolling through the song like children turning cartwheels through an empty field. Every track has a serious vibe, which can read almost old-fashioned, but “Conundrum” comes closest to a modern sensibility, with Vincent using a soulful performance and his band backing him with a contemporary groove.
The most striking thing about In This Town You’re Owned is the honesty of Vincent’s vocals and lyrics. They’re not raw so much as they’re candid. It’s a subtle difference, but one that probably comes out of his early country influences. Ultimately, that emotional distance he privileges is what allows him to be so precise with the moods he evokes. Someone weeping or screaming tells a story, but it’s usually a fairly short one. Vincent’s laser-like poignancy doesn’t have that same kind of initial impact, but it also sucks you in, making you want to learn more about his world.