Canadian troubadour Hayden may have arrived on the musical scene, seemingly fully formed, a decade ago, but his subsequent output suggests that even the most mature beginner never stops growing. Case-in-point: Elk Lake Serenade, Hayden’s lovingly crafted new release is a simple, wise and melancholic wonder whose overall composition impresses just as much as each of its 15 memorable songs. The lifelines of Hayden’s first records can surely be traced to ELS, but this release suggests an artist completely at home in his musical skin—something you couldn’t say about his earlier material.
His hoarse, quavering voice and compelling, minor-key stories combine the quiet, emotional immediacy of a Neil Young, Nick Drake or Damien Jurado, with universal themes indelibly colored by Hayden’s Northern roots. And, like those songwriting touchstones, his subject matter is more for the broken- than faint-hearted.
Two separate-but-related themes course through Elk Lake Serenade—the transitory nature of love and the death of those whose love might otherwise endure. ELS opens with the plaintive, piano-driven chamber piece, “Wide Eyes,” a treatise on the uncomfortable notion that our deepest-felt loves are more haphazard than pre-ordained. The same morose tenor echoes through songs like “Starting Over,” an adult look at how men and women resolve conflict in seemingly irreconcilable fashions, and “Robbed Blind,” about the emotional distances that typically accompany geographical ones.
On the corporeal front, “This Summer” is an intimate, personal meditation on death; “Looking Back at Me” concerns a grisly car crash and its not-quite-anonymous victims; and “Killbear” recounts a mauling that results in an ex-girlfriend’s death. But just when the weight of the world—or the record—might become insupportable, the emotionally pitch-perfect sequencing kicks in with an upbeat number like the giddy, trumpet-burnished “Hollywood Ending” or the moog-rich rocker “My Wife,” and balance is restored.
Hayden’s palette may not include as many colors these days, but with age comes the wisdom and ability to do more with the ones you already possess.