Us Alone is a pretty good record from a neglected Canadian artist, one that should have him beating the comeback trail.
If you thought Toronto folkie-cum-alternative music icon Hayden (full name: Paul Hayden Desser) was dead, there’s a reason. In recent years, Hayden’s Wikipedia page had erroneously listed him as being deceased, and it wasn’t until a fan brought this to the artist’s attention that he sat up, decided to put himself back out there and began writing songs again. "I was dead six months before anyone noticed," recalls the singer-songwriter in a press release. There might have been something to the "Hayden is Dead" rumor: after all, Hayden did nothing to promote his last album, 2009’s The Place Where We Lived. No videos, no tours, no promotional interviews, nothing. It was as though Hayden disappeared from the radar altogether.
This downward spiral seemingly toward the funeral casket is surprising when you consider how viable and hot a property he was in the mid-‘90s: his 1995 debut, Everything I Long For, was released independently at the tail end of the Canadian indie-rock renaissance (a period that lasted roughly a decade, beginning around 1985), became an instant Canuck cult classic, and sparked a major label bidding war that eventually saw the artist sign with a subsidiary of Geffen Records for a cool million dollars and complete artistic control over his material, making it one of the more lucrative deals of the Alternative Nation period. He was an indie It Boy for a while, too: he provided the title song to the 1996 Steve Buscemi-directed film Trees Lounge, and he received ongoing video airplay both on Canada’s MuchMusic and MTV’s 120 Minutes. For awhile, it seemed that Hayden was going places internationally, but when his 1998 major label studio follow-up, The Closer I Get, failed to register with the critics and record buyers, and the subsidiary label he was on folded in the late-‘90s, he was cast adrift and resigned to releasing records independently on his own label.
That all ends now. Hayden’s latest and seventh long-player, Us Alone, is being released on lauded Canadian indie label Arts & Crafts, which is most famously home to the currently inactive Broken Social Scene, and this backing is probably going to bring him a new level of exposure unseen since his heyday. He’s made a video for a song off the record called "Rainy Saturday" (see the media player beneath this review), he’s actually touring Europe and North America again, and his publicists are working double overtime to make sure that Hayden gets the attention the oft-described-as-reclusive artist needs. To wit, I’ve personally received at least three e-mails in recent months about this album from the Canadian publicist, and this isn’t counting the press release that U.S. publicity has sent around. Usually, reviewers like me tend to get only one or two promotional items sent to my inbox per artist. And Hayden seems unapologetic about the newfound attention, and concedes the error of his inactive promotional ways. "Don't get me wrong," Hayden says in one press release, "I've always taken the music extremely seriously, but I've definitely made a few promotional missteps. One example would be not doing a single show or interview for my last record. Yes, I put out a record in 2009." In a sense, Hayden was (artistically) dead, and it isn’t unforeseen to learn that since at least 2002, Hayden’s friends have jokingly referred to his concert dates as the "Hayden’s Not Dead Tour". (But be forewarned: I took that last bit of information from Hayden’s always not-so-reliable Wikipedia page.)
Enough about the artist’s state of mortality (which is even alluded to on this new album, which I’ll get to momentarily); let’s just talk about the music. Us Alone is a consistently strong release, with only one real dud to speak of, and should position Hayden as a force to be reckoned with again. Instead of leaning on his Lou Barlow-influenced sound of his glory days, Hayden is now something of a countrified rocker in the Neil Young vein, though, as the song that opens this collection, "Motel", illustrates, his reach goes back into ‘70s-style AM radio gold, too. "Motel", in fact, is such a splash of water in the face, despite being relatively mopey, precisely because it sounds like a graft of Eric Carmen’s and Fleetwood Mac’s balladry. Punctuated by two piano chords that occasionally rise out of nowhere, "Motel" kicks you in the ass right when you think it’s okay to doze off and be enchanted by its melody. There’s even a shout out to the Boss here: "I can’t go on pretending this song is about young lovers born to run / When it’s so clearly about you and me." As this lyric also proves, Us Alone is a densely personal record.
The album’s most acutely autobiographical note comes midway through the LP with "Almost Everything", a recounting of Hayden’s rise to fame and the impact he had on his followers, before dovetailing into the current state of his muse. As Hayden recounts, "Friends of mine were in a band ... and I thought I had a chance to be like them / So I recorded and I sang of the things I knew of back then / Some kids who heard and saw me ... / At a time in their lives when music was everything / It was everything." And yet everything has changed since then: "But I’m recording once again, while my kid is upstairs in bed / And I’ll admit that now and then / There’s some nights when I’m struggling ... / The music is still everything / Well, almost everything." (And that last bit is sung with a pause where the coma is, and an almost audible shrug of the shoulders.) As the ellipses show, there are some sections where the music overtakes Hayden’s vocals and it’s hard to make out what he has to say, which is too bad as he does have a compelling tale to tell of the dangers and trapping of fame, and what it means to make art when one has other responsibilities as one grows into one’s 40s, which is where Hayden sits now. Still, it’s a brilliant and poignant account.
And the album even grows arguably more delicate from there. Closing track "Instructions" (save for a hidden bonus song) is precisely that: directives on what to do when the artist finally does kick the bucket (there’s the reference to material about death alluded to earlier). "Here’s how I’d like things to go down / Please don’t leave me in the ground / Put all my ashes in a can / Drive up north in a van / Roll the windows down and play the Band." And, from there, Hayden would like his ashes to be thrown off a dock into the wind from a place where he would swim, and there are further commands to burn all of his personal notebooks, presumably filled with snatches of unfinished song lyrics and melodies. It’s stark and depressing, and yet refreshing honest -- and possibly a counterpoint to all of that speculation that he had passed on.
The only place where the album truly staggers is on "Oh Memory", which is a five-minute-plus piano and organ dirge that recalls the work of fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen. It is simply listless and uninteresting, and just meanders on for too long -- it takes a full minute and 50 seconds before you get to any singing. It should have been cut as it does put a dead stop to the album, even if the music is thematically relevant to the rest of Us Alone. However, it does underscore that Us Alone is largely a late-at-night record. I listened to this in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, and the album just didn’t have the same effect. That’s not to say the record is completely stark and bleak, as "Rainy Saturday", the song that Hayden made a video for, is a bright and punchy number that should win him a few new converts, at least those unaware that the remainder of the album is slower paced and much more laid back. I’d say, though, that Us Alone is a pretty good record from a neglected Canadian artist, one that should have him beating the comeback trail. Even the title suggests an intimacy between the artist and the fan, and the album deftly walks the path between the candid and straightforward, which feels like a refreshing breeze. Call it a cliché, if you must, but Us Alone proves that Hayden isn’t remotely dead, creatively or otherwise. At least, it’s safe to say, not yet.