Ever since Hayden's quirky hit "Bad as They Seem" surprised the Canadian music scene with its sleepy observational honesty, Hayden's path has been an interesting display of imbalance, predictability and still, surprise. On the one hand he's an acoustically ailing troubadour, a sort of Neil Young modeled man stuck in his own personal and dignified Harvest era. On the other though, Mr. Desser sits comfortably (and maybe too much so) dabbling in the pop soaked regions of inoffensive AOR. All and all it's forgiven, if only because the former's soaring integrity covers the latter's lack, and if anyone can pull off the mix, it's Hayden; the requisite charm and warmth his in abundance, and these qualities more than capable of battling the blandness others less talented would taint the same material. Still you can't help shake the sensation that this is a great artist who has yet to make his "great" album.
There have been many flashes of brilliance, and though the quality of his output has always been consistently high, many I think, would be hard pressed pointing to one collection of material and saying, "this is the Hayden album you have to listen to."
Either way, his potential as a rallying songwriter was evident on 2002's Live at Convocation Hall. Besides presenting his catalogue, Hayden's sense of humor and between song banter shone, elevating many of his songs with vigor and open honesty. Listening to that double album you hear large amounts of grace, wit, self-deprecation and adventure, elements that unified any and all angles of Hayden's folk pop brand.
Upon first listen, Elk Lake Serenade suffers from a lack of this sort of unity, sitting as it does between equal parts mellow heartbreak songs and cheery countrified pop, and never in its individual sonic differences does it really threaten to form as a whole. That this 15-track release opens in the former mode, with a moody piano based dirge called "Wide Eyes", a ditty that includes the line "put your arms around me and pretend I'm all you need", is perhaps then an apt opening. As while it is as melodic as it is melancholic, the lyrics are possibly much more telling considering the effort of its author to be everything to everyone.
"Home By Saturday" is the first of many country-infected tracks, and though not disappointing, it feels less convincing coming after the album's dark opening. "Through the Rads", "Robbed Blind", and "Don't Get Down", follow this model as well, and both feel oddly out of place among the rest of the set, with the latter's rather dopey lyrics proving especially grating, despite it's sing-along chorus and attempted charm.
Hearing these only makes Hayden sound most interesting when he allows more ambient sounds to coat his often unhinged vocal turns. "Starting Over", is a case in point, as over an intriguingly aching backdrop of piano and strings, an unexpected trumpet break sends the tune into another realm. This is a new sort of folk-rock music, and one both poetic and exciting. Add a pair of haunting Nick Drake-inspired tunes like "Killbear", and "1939", (which is epic in its sparseness) to "Elk-Lake Serenade", a small piano intro of sorts to the mammoth and equally eerie echo-based, and 12-minute long "Looking Back at Me", and you can't help but hope Hayden contacts Daniel Lanois and explores the direction further.
This point is especially prescient when placed on an album as skewered as this, as despite the successfully intriguing ambient pieces, there are still many stabs at radio friendliness here that would fit in. "Woody", a song previously released on Hayden's aforementioned live album, shines again in its gloriously catchy feel good aura -- one measured by the downtrodden lyrical feel.
"Hollywood Ending" takes this somewhat summery approach too, allowing another wonderful trumpet break to guide unexpected turns in a song surprising in its unpredictability. Sure, it's close to AOR pop, but it may be Mr. Desser's best pop song since "Bad As They Seem". The difference is instead of quirk the song breathes a sort of confidence he has only occasionally exhibited before.
The synth colored and electric guitar based "My Wife", fails though in comparison, as obviously pleased with the relatively new sound, the song fails to do much and seems content enough to simply present the fact he's using a synth and not an acoustic guitar. This, and the sometimes out of place country influences create an album that seems overlong and out of focus, this despite the short playing time of many tracks.
Another hit and miss affair then, depending entirely on what you're expecting of course. Either way, there still are at least half dozen excellent tunes on this collection, and it points out an ever-improving songwriter... one who even while frustrating, remains far too talented to dismiss.