The moment I saw the “Bad As It Seems” video on MuchMusic I became a Hayden fan. His pained but beautiful and somewhat catchy song about longing and malaise cuts right to the quick of any self-conscious teenager. I searched intensively for his first album, Everything I Long For, and once I found it I studied it, not necessarily musically, but lyrically (which is unusual for me) and the songs - half stories, half about painful and or awkward romantic situations - just resonated with me. I started to obsess about the track to the point where I began stringing them together into a strange narrative in my head. I actually at one point wrote a few pages, intending to novelize the album (an ambitious undertaking of FanFic proportions which I later realized would probably diminish the source material and abandoned it). I’ve seen Hayden live a half dozen times, I think, the most memorable the first which was held at the downtown music club in Thunder Bay (the name escapes me) which was so tiny and had a miniature stage a foot off the ground. The crowd sat cross-legged on the floor and watched Mr. Desser growl out his tunes, pretty much just him and his harmonica (a later appearance would find an additional guitarist helping him out, then two assistants trading of instruments, and one time even a female vocalist). Hayden’s second album was a disappointment to many (his big contract with Universal was bought out because it underperformed), and a third album seemed a long time in coming, although in reality it was only really just over three years (same with his fourth), but my enthusiasm waned. He’s released a fifth album which is not in my collection (his sixth is due out next Tuesday, pre-orders from iTunes include his cover of The National’s “Slow Show”), so this re-consumption is an assessment of whether Hayden is going to make the list (see “about me” #116).
Everything I Long For (1995)
I don’t remember the last time I listened to this, but upon re-listening it is absolutely a seminal album in Canadian and independent music history. Although I’m intimately familiar with its tracks, it’s still at times an absolute knife in the gut, twisting and turning. Pained, agressive, beautiful, sweet, melancholy and depressing, there are a gamut of emotions rolling throughout this album, but nearly every track is something to behold (”Lounging”, the closing track, is the least memorable), each telling a story, often revealing something extremely personal about its author. “Bad As They Seem” opens the album, and like so many other tracks, it’s like Mr. Desser is singing right into your ear. There’s a darkness that looms over the album, where even tracks like “Driveway” and “Bunkbed” which should be somewhat humorous recollections of his childhood are accompanied by insidious instrumentation that make the events sound almost horrific. A curious juxtaposition to be sure. Tracks like “I’m To Blame”, “In September”, “You Were Loved”, “Hardly” and “My Parents House” all are wildly different tracks about different stages of relationships, the end, the beginning, the missed opportunity… all of them seeming very personal and the emotional expression Hayden imbues makes the situations so real and relatable, but this is true of most of his songs. “Skates” is probably the most potent track, a story about a man buying skates in a store the singer worked at you wouldn’t think would be so decimating, yet with the final verse, it’s like having the wind knocked out of you. On the original pressing there’s a “hidden track” of silly recipes (with his friend Jon Poledo) which deflates the serious and sombre tone of the album and shows that Hayden does indeed have a sense of humour. The album is resonant and memorable. Even though I don’t listen to it often, it’s intimacy always welcomes me in.
favourite track: Bunkbed (which apparently isn’t on the re-issue)
Moving Careful ep (1996)
This ep was a “must have” extension of Everything I Long For, 7 (well, 8, actually as one is “hidden”) songs, a pair of which appear differently on Hayden’s sophomore release, “Stride” and “You Are All I Have”. These two tracks I originally liked on this ep much more, in their stripped-down form, but now I actually prefer the fuller sound they have on the main album. In this respect you can tell the EP isn’t necessarily mastered as well as the albums, but the tracks are no less phenomenal although the pain threshold is minimized. “Pots and Pans”, about noisy neighbours, provides some further insight into Hayden’s sometimes delicate personality (”Late at night they bang their pots and pans/oh man, they’re so loud/oh well, they’re allowed/until ten PM to be loud/ then I’ll call the cops/or chicken out”). “Old Fashioned Way” is practically jovial (comparatively), about a barber refusing to provide a shave due to concerns over AIDS, while “Half For Me” is a sweet and sad track about double dating gone horribly wrong. It’s a great transitional ep between albums, as Hayden’s style softens somewhat, less aggressive and a little lighter.
Favourite track: Pots and Pans
The Closer I Get (1998)
“aka” the disappointment, but, the moral victory for Hayden is it’s held up over the years, even improving with age. If anything the sound was a bit ahead of its time, injecting a bit of twang into the folkier sound, which would become a much bigger sound half a decade later. I think I, like so many, were expecting a continuation of his debut, but the sound isn’t nearly as fragile. Take “Stride”, as it differs from Moving Careful, featuring organ, bells, shakers, sax, acoustic and electric guitar, toms and drums. It’s richer sounding, but less personal, yet, as the years have passed it’s this depth which keeps it fresh. “The Hazards of Sitting Beneath Palm Trees” is absolutely Hayden’s poppiest track, and it’s got a great guitar riff and a nice hook. It’s only fault is it’s not nearly long enough. It’s almost incidental, but you want it to carry on for another two or three verses. This album also features two instrumental tracks (to Everything I Long For’s one) - “Waiting For A Chance To See Her” and “Instrumental With Mellotron” - and though it’s his lyrics he’s best known for crafting, I think these show just how potent and diverse a musician he is (one wonders why hasn’t he done a fully instrumental vanity album). As far as sweet and romantic, they don’t get much better than “Two Doors” (it’s seriously all in the banjo). “Better Off Inside” is about as aggressive as Hayden gets on this album (though it’s nothing like the gravelly “In September”), and it sounds nearly as poppy as “Hazards…” “Nights Like These” takes a dramatically different turn, as Hayden provides a chamber ballad, his vocals echoing over his piano. Given studio space and a budget, Hayden experimented and while it may not have been what people were hoping for, years later it continues to deliver, perhaps not in the same way that his debut does, but it’s amazing how his sound progressed in just one album.
favourite track: “The Hazards of Sitting Beneath Palm Trees”video
Skyscraper National Park (2001)
I would say that this is the album in which I stopped listening to the lyrics. Not intentionally, mind, but by 2001 my absorption of songs was low even though consumption was just ramping up. Too many albums being bought, too many things being listened to, and I never gave SNP much attention. The peppier songs like “Dynamite Walls”, “Carried Away” and “All In One Move” may have had my toes tapping, but I can’t say I ever fully paid attention to them. “Streetcar” and “Bass Song” bring back the timidness and fragility in Hayden’s voice that we haven’t really heard since his debut, while “Tea Pad” is the lone instrumental for the album. “Long Way Down”, “Steps Into Miles”, and “Looking For You In Me” all return to that element of country flavour that was peppered about The Closer I Get, and “Lullaby” closes out the album with a soft, catchy guitar riff. This album, at 11 songs, is fairly short, and with three songs under 2 minutes, it clocks in at just under 40. It feels over before its time, but unlike, say “..Hazards” the songs all seem to play out appropriately in their own length. Not his most memorable album but a strong one which I could stand to listen to more closely.
Favourite Songs: Dynamite Walls
Live At Convocation Hall (2002)
I think it was with this two-disc recording that I realized I don’t like live albums (Sloan’s downright horrible live album sparked the feelings). Hayden’s vocals are empty sounding, all his usual resonance removed by hollow sound in the recording. It sounds like, well, an official bootleg. The thing about live shows is that a lot of bands like to change up, rearrange, remix or alter completely their older material since they get bored with playing it over and over again. After his third album, Hayden still didn’t have a lot of room to move in his songs and they really don’t sound that unique here, just more poorly recorded. Even though I’ve enjoyed many of Hayden’s live shows, few of them have left me with the feeling that I must have the live performance recreated for home listening. There was one exception, his cover of the Pixies’ “Gouge Away” (which actually was recorded on a 7″ years ago) but that’s not here. Hayden’s on stage persona is just as bashful and subtle as you would expect after years of listening to his songs, so it’s not like there’s much between song banter to recreate the live experience. It’s a decent compilation of Hayden’s songs, but you’re really better off buying the albums and supporting the live shows instead. The one good thing, a lyrics book.
Elk Lake Serenade (2004)
If I didn’t listen to SNP very intently even if frequently, I all but downright ignored Elk-Lake after a few listens. There are more tracks here (16, including a hidden track), but at average all are a shorter length (most clocking in at under 3 minutes, some under 2). I think the length of the songs, a bit more simplified, allowed me to absorb the album faster, but also allowed me to shuffle it aside quickly. Its less twangier than the previous two releases, more folkier, with the harmonica making a dramatic return. Tracks like “Home By Saturday”, “Woody”, “Hollywood Ending”, “Through The Rads”, “Don’t Get Down” and more feeling generally more upbeat, if not positive. After so long it was, perhaps not shocking, but almost an about face for the artist. While not completely unwelcome, the songs feel more traditional structurally, less involved in storytelling (and thus less involving) , with “1939″ easily the most involving, and “My Wife” the only blatant mis-step (as it introduces synths abruptly into the mix). If anything, this is Hayden’s most pop album, but it’s also the least of his works, feeling detached from the intimacy most fans were used to. While the songs are enjoyable individually, I don’t enjoy Elk Lake as an album. The general direction of this album, and my response to it, would be the main reason why I have yet to pick up the follow-up, In Field & Town.
Favourite song:Home By Saturday
After revisiting my Hayden catalog, I’m hesitant to add him to “the list”, although I’m also not ready to write him off it completely. I’ll venture to listen to some songs from In Field & Town and the May 26 release of The Place Where We Live, but to me each album has felt like depreciating returns, but I’d also hate to miss a return to form.
Hayden performed the title track to Steve Buscemi’s film “Tree’s Lounge”, and it’s one of his best-ever songs.
The official Hayden site has more videos.