Hayden Desser’s forte is economy. His songs are, and always have been, short and sweet. It brings me great joy to find that, even while expanding on his standard troubadoric nature, only two of In Field and Town’s 11 songs break the four-minute mark. This is not to say that Desser can’t move beyond four minutes, and it’s certainly not to over-simplify Desser’s output. Rather, it shows an important self-awareness. Simply put, some artists prosper in condensed form. Think early Wilco. Think certain eras of Neil Young, to whom Desser is often compared, though his drawl is far more reminiscent of the early ‘90s apathy heard in J. Mascis, Evan Dando, and Damien Jurado.
Still, there’s a notable, complex subtlety at the heart of In Field and Town: Desser’s been around the block a few times. He knows, as do other great songwriters, where an when to pull certain moves. He knows when to repeat a line and where the piano is absolutely necessary. In explaining all of this it becomes clear that this knowledge is simply a metaphor for Desser’s recipe for artistic success: he knows what is necessary and when it’s so. Throughout the entirety of In Field and Town (as well as on his previous, fantastic record Elk-Lake Serenade), everything is completely necessary and nothing is extravagant.
And sure, you might say that extravagance is what’s necessary to stand out in our contemporary rock and pop world, and that might be so. Desser’s songs aren’t likely to jump out at you amidst the pressure of giant pop songs, but there are pushes toward pop-ness here that, if nothing else, separate In Field and Town from Desser’s other output. More noticably, Desser’s songwriting on this record is accessible, expressive, and slightly off-kilter enough to grab fans of a great breadth. He recalls everyone from Elton John and Harry Nilsson to modern troubadors Ryan Adams and Richard Swift. As such, Desser is truly an everyman’s songwriter.
That said, this is a set of break-up songs, one presented in an interestingly narrative fashion. There’s an undeniable build-up of disillusionment from beginning to end, from the record’s hopeful first lines (“Take it easy, it’s what we need to do right now”) on to its last (“I had no chance”). In between, Desser longs for the fading feeling of missing someone who has left and eventually reaches the objective rear-view that reveals love doomed from the start. Desser’s deft mix of earnestness and abstraction allows great breadth to what might be cliché from another artist. It allows him to get away with things. Lyrically he’s no Leonard Cohen, but there are definitively complex moments of poetic abstraction, such as the gorgeous narrative of “Where and When”, that mingle with some of the more captivating straightforward songwriting in recent years.
In Field and Town is not the sort of love story that shows you the good stuff before it gets to the bad. Rather, it expects that you know about the good stuff already. It begins, as many great stories do, in media res, at the moment where hope begins to fade. If taken as such a narrative, there are remarkable things done with point of view. Some songs seem to be sung from the point of view of the downtrodden, some from a more omniscient narrator. Collectively these songs add up to an entire story told via juxtaposition. It’s here that Desser’s mastery, not only of songwriting but of arrangement and structure as well, shines brightest. Whether such a concept will earn Desser points in the long run is hard to say, but he does what he does extremely well, and rock ‘n’ roll has no place to shun a great lovelorn record.