Photo credit: Yael Staav
Hayden Desser (more commonly known by his first name only) has had an interesting career trajectory. He spent much of the early ’90s recording songs onto his 4-track, and playing opening slots in Toronto for bands he liked. In 1995, his debut album, Everything I Long For was released, first on his own Hardwood Records imprint, and later on the Geffen-affiliated Outpost Records. On the strength of such personal ruminations such as “Bad As They Seem” (a tale of a sad-sack who still lives with his parents and moans “What do I do this for / Gotta get out some more / Go down to the grocery store / Meet someone I’ll adore”), Everything I Long For became a minor alternative hit, and scored Hayden opening slots for artists such as Grant Lee Buffalo, Archers of Loaf and Weezer. Although the records he’s put out since his debut haven’t been quite as high-profile, they have all been quality releases that, if not necessarily increasing his fan base dramatically, have certainly kept his existing listeners appeased. The three years before the release of this year’s Skyscraper National Park, however, saw said fan base becoming rather restless, as nothing at all had been heard from Hayden since ’98’s The Closer I Get. The usual major-label troubles were, of course, to blame, as Outpost Records, Hayden’s former label, had folded, leaving him in the lurch. As the story goes, after this had happened, Hayden had pretty much given up on the music biz, and recorded the songs that make up Skyscraper National Park with only the intention of pressing up 100 or so copies for friends. However, although Hayden may not be the biggest name out there as far as singer/songwriters go, he’s certainly got a damn sight more than 100 fans, and soon, there were clamorings coming from all directions for him to release this material as a proper album. Thankfully for everyone concerned, Hayden decided that this was not such a bad idea after all, and with the help of San Francisco-based Badman Recordings, Skyscraper National Park is now as readily available as… well, as that damn Mark Kozelek record full of AC/DC covers. Critics have lavished a great deal of praise upon SNP (in fact, I have yet to see one negative review of it), and with good reason. It shows Hayden growing ever more sure of himself artistically, and honing in on a sound that suits him very well. Although one could say that due to its relative sameness of mood, it’s not as interesting a record as Everything I Long For, I don’t think there’s too many folks who would say that his debut is actually better. While Everything was rather schizophrenic, giving equal time to pretty, acoustic laments like “Stem” and “Hardly”, burly rockers like “In September” and “Driveway” (which made the most of Hayden’s booming baritone), and songs that split the difference like “Bad As They Seem” and the epic, dramatic “Skates”. Hell, it even found room for an absolutely harrowing psychodrama, “When This Is Over”, a song written from the point of view of two children who were trapped in a car that was being driven into a lake by their mother. Fun stuff, to be sure. Compared to that emotional roller-coaster, Skyscraper is positively even-tempered: Hayden keeps the bellowing to an absolute minimum, and even sings much of the record in a lilting falsetto. However, what the record loses in excitement, it gains back in cohesiveness and clarity of vision. While it sees Hayden painting in quiet, muted tones, it also sees him creating some of his best songs within that framework. So, when confronting the Hayden live experience, I really had no idea what to expect. There was always the question of whether he would appear alone or with a band. Considering the disparity in tone between his records, there was also the question of whether he would bring searing intensity or delicate songcraft to the stage. Then there was the opening band to contend with. Fellow Badman Recording artists Clairvoyants had the honor of opening the evening’s entertainment. While they were far from terrible, they weren’t exactly the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen, either. Mining the scant middle ground between Nick Drake and Red House Painters, the somnambulant duo played song after pretty song, all of which threatened to evaporate into the ether before making much of an impression. I suppose their stuff would be nice company on a rainy Sunday afternoon after you’d just been dumped, but considering that it was a balmy Saturday evening, and I was there with my girlfriend who has yet to dump me, the moroseness of it all wasn’t exactly floating my boat. Shortly after Clairvoyants’ mope-fest ended, Hayden took the stage, resplendent in his white-boy ‘fro, jeans and t-shirt. His easy sense of humor and affable onstage demeanor were evident from the start of his performance: it was clear that this would be an easy show to enjoy. Although the focus of his set was definitely on songs from Skyscraper National Park, he was not above pulling crowd-pleasers like “Bad As They Seem” and “The Hazards of Sitting Beneath Palm Trees” (from his sophomore effort, The Closer I Get) out of his hat. It’s also worth noting that for a Canadian artist whose last major appearance in the alternative media was over five years ago, Hayden nonetheless appears to have a quite healthy, quite vocal core of fans, all of whom roared with recognition whenever he played anything from his first record. The crowd was certainly appreciative of his performance of newer songs, as well, but it was still quite obvious where their preferences lay. Although he did play quite a few songs from that famous debut record, Hayden definitely shied away from the more intense material in favor of the lighter, folkier stuff. However, in the light of his new record, it’s easily understandable. While songs like “In September” and “Skates” were good at the time (and still hold up on record), it’s easy to see that Hayden has outgrown the primal bluster of those tunes in favor of a more refined version of his indie-folk stylings. Practically every song on Skyscraper was presented, except, oddly enough, the two of the more standout tracks, “Bass Song” and “Carried Away”. Although the album is fairly simple and light as far as instrumentation and arrangement go, in this solo performance, Hayden stripped these songs down to their true bare-bones nature. To his immense credit, the lack of a backing band did nothing to detract from the strength and personality that these songs exhibit in abundance. He doesn’t play too many fancy chords, he doesn’t utilize any neck-snapping time changes, and there’s not even the slightest whiff of electronica in any of his songs. Despite all this, Hayden makes music that is as quietly engaging as any hip band of the moment. He’s not flashy, and he doesn’t have any tricks up his sleeve — just a beautiful voice, a knack for stringing the right words together in the right way, and a few simple guitar chords. This is Hayden’s recipe for success. That it works so well is a testament not only to his talent, but also to the fact that you just don’t need all that extraneous crap to make good music — you just need to write good songs. It’s a lesson that many musicians, both indie and mainstream, would do well to take to heart.