[25 June 2009]
The sixth studio album by Paul Hayden Desser arrives only 15 months or so after the release of his last record, the well-received In Field and Town. There’s always been something pleasingly anachronistic about this unassuming Canadian troubadour, who with his low-key profile and intimate, warm and wry songs, seems as if he might have been more at home in the 1970s golden age of the singer-songwriter. Neither exceptionally exciting nor totally dull, the bulk of Hayden’s output thus far certainly doesn’t scale the heights of a Joni Mitchell, a James Taylor or a Neil Young, and it might be argued that he has yet to make a truly great, essential album. But there’s a friendly, reliable and unforced quality to his work that remains rather appealing.
Backed on several tracks by members of Oshawa band Cuff the Duke and with producer Howie Beck adding some interesting subtle textures, Hayden continues his increasingly mellow amalgam of country, folk, pop and rock on this new record. With its twangy guitar, gentle drums and piano, the title track makes for a lovely, enticing opener, as Hayden’s dusky vocals intone the evocative, nostalgic lyrics with conviction and warmth. Graced by a late blast of wheezy harmonica, “Message From London” boasts the album’s most intriguing narrative. The piano-led “Disappear” is haunting and percussive, while “The Valley” borrows the title of his compatriot Jane Siberry’s wide-screen epic for a rootsy instrumental. Despite some fairly mediocre lyrics, “Let’s Break Up” is a pleasantly direct and blithe kiss-off.
At times, there can seem to be little that separates an effective Hayden song from a bland one, since he uses some of the same components in both. A couple of tracks in the wispy Nick Drake mold drift by without generating much stir, and there are moments here that could’ve fitted happily onto a Dawson’s Creek soundtrack album, circa 1997. But the bursts of electric guitar in the excellent “Dilapidated Hearts” are invigorating; the elegant country waltz of “Never Lonely” is effortlessly seductive; and the quiet, tender closer “Let It Last” gently touches the heart.
At just ten tracks, and with a very modest running time of only 30 minutes, The Place Where We Lived feels slight and could certainly have done with a little more meat on its bones. It’s an unassertive album that breaks no new ground, but by this stage, Hayden devotees probably wouldn’t expect or desire it to. Overall, though, and despite its brevity, this respectable collection of songs represents a satisfying addition to his catalogue.