Hayden is an enigma. One of those good types of enigmas that invigorate you, keep you guessing. For after appearing on the scene in 1996 with Everything I Long For and being critically vomited on (again, in that good way) by the likes of Spin (gasp!) and others, then releasing the less Earth-shattering The Closer I Get in 1998 and touring for nearly a year, our friend Hayden sort of disappeared. Not in the sense that he was missing and Canadian police were waiting for a body to turn up somewhere in the woods of British Columbia . . . more in the sense that he took some time off. Played the recluse role, so to speak. The paranoid hermit who screens calls and doesn't open the shades. Countless menus around the doorknob and yellow UPS slips stuck to the front door. We're sorry we couldn't reach you, your career has been left next door.
But a funny thing happened on the way Pynchonville. Hayden has returned. It seems that he wasn't taking any calls or letting in light because he was busy playing guitar and stuff. Writing songs. The resulting songs of this hiatus show up on the gorgeous Skyscraper National Park. Initially printed for Hayden to sell after shows, public demand spurned the man to release it on his own Hardwood Records label (after, of course, lengthy contractual negotiations with himself).
And better are we, the listeners, for it's release. Really. Skyscraper shares it's creepy, ethereal aesthetic with all things Oldham (comma Will) as channeled through Lou Barlow. Each of the 11 tracks are deeply rooted in tortured folk, but smothered with a glossy layer of despair that, like the effect of Oldham's cracked lilt and warped worldview, make them come across more as exercises in coping than a plea for sympathy. Don't be sad. Understand.
The songs themselves are delicate slices of low heart-rate brilliance. "Dynamite Walls" is a stunning seven minute mixed message, the music hypnotic and drowsy, the lyrics prohibitive like a warning label on a prescription bottle advising its user not to drive: "Open your eyes / Put it in drive / Get on the road / And just go," he drones, over the closest approximation of a chunky guitar line to be found anywhere on the disc. It's hard to ignore the sleepy advice and not want to drive. Or at least nap.
That song's polar opposite, indeed the most instantly catchy and therefore atypical song here, is "Carried Away", a Beatles/Belle & Sebastian-type stomp in which the singer advises a friend to leave her man. "Don't be scared to leave him / You've been sad all season / You should think of something to say / Maybe you could tell him / That from the day you met him / You've been liking him less and less . . . He might really love you / And be crushed by the news / But you can always take back the things you say". Hayden the therapist, the borrowed ear. His advice -- when to drive; relationships -- so astute.
Skyscraper National Park is a welcome reminder of why anyone liked singer-songwriters in the first place. It's an exercise in ghostly, oxymoronic atmospherics, as the sheer simplicity and warmth of the songs is completely enveloping and overwhelming, in the best sense. "It doesn't matter what any of us is looking for", he swoons on "Dynamite Walls", "we'll never find it because, it's not even there". Disappointment never sounded so acceptable.