Hayden’s Us Alone proves “the music’s still everything … well, almost everything”
Nearly 20 years after Canadian singer/songwriter Hayden’s first album, Us Alone is equal parts a love letter to his daughter, as well as a nostalgic look back at a career lived, for the most part, his own way. It is important to note that this is his first album in 12 years that was not released by his own label and/or Badman Recordings, but by Arts & Crafts, a small independent Canadian label with an impressive line-up of artists: Broken Social Scene, Feist, Cold Specks, to name a few. How does Hayden fit into that mix? Well, maybe as a legend of the Canadian music scene. Did he ever attain the sales and the following amassed by Feist or Broken Social Scene? Well, probably not in the sales category. But as for fans, he definitely has a cult following…as well as the respect of fellow musicians and the Canadian music industry. In fact, Us Alone was was nominated for a Juno Award (Canada’s equivalent of the Grammys) for Adult Alternative Album of the Year in 2013.
At its heart, Us Alone is that Kodachrome experience we’ve grown to expect (and love) from Hayden. It’s being touted as his most autobiographical release to date. I’m not sure if this is entirely true, as he’s sung about similar themes and topics in the past. Yet, no doubt these songs have more meaning as his life has become a lot more than just a collection of bedroom conquests.
Us Alone begins with “Motel”: I agree, we should leave in an hour, or better right now / or we’ll never lift this anchor. But, in what would appear to be the start of another tale of bedroom lore, we realize something quite different, as Hayden confesses: I can’t go on, pretending this song is about young lovers born to run / when it’s so clearly about you and me / and I agree, we’ll get no sleep until we strap her into that seat, and stop this terrible sound by driving her around / ‘til we pass that motel. And just like that we realize that Hayden’s all grown up (as are we), weaving his daughter’s sleeplessness into a song.
The next track, “Just Give Me A Name” is rather dark and foreboding, contrary to the instrumentation. It is the tale of a cuckolded lover, indifferent to his cheating partner (or at least not wanting to know the how and why of her indiscretions). He repeatedly requests: Just give me a name, like the name of his street, where he likes to eat, and what time he gets home from work.
Next up is the album’s second single, “Blurry Nights” — a song of desperation and despair about lovers, possibly past their expiration date. A rare treat is that this is a duet between Hayden and Lou Cannon, an artist he had signed to his Hardwood label. The duet allows a his-her view on the same stale relationship. Hey, out of my blurry night, ours was the one I liked most of all / it’s ok that we had nothing to say, and that didn’t get in the way if I recall. While the female protagonist seems to be a bit more into the relationship, they both agree that nothing good can ever come from this in the long run / but let’s not dismiss all the fun we can have tonight, if we forget how we might feel in the morning light. It’s as if the characters that almost came to fruition in “Motel” found their home in “Blurry Nights”…although a crying baby is clearly NOT the cause of their sleepless night in this song.
Pulling the family guy/parent card, Hayden receives the “ahhh” from countless fans for this one: Clearly an ode to his daughter, “Old Dreams” addresses Hayden’s new-found priorities: I don’t want my old dreams / now my dreams are your dreams / all I want is you to be happy. What is slightly ironic is that I’m not sure the “Hayden” that Hayden Desser is singing about was ever the Hayden that we knew: Idon’t want the bright lights / I don’t need more invites / I don’t need more reviews / not unless they’re from you. To this fan, it never seemed as if Hayden was ever concerned or interested in these things. However, this tune is the perfect segue to the following track.
“Almost Everything” seems to continue the autobiographic theme. From his teen years to his “stardom” (even referencing the labels’ bidding wars to sign him back in ’96, which included Neil Young trying to sway him to sign with Vapor Records) to Hayden the family man, “Almost Everything” could stand as his perfect bio. So I recorded and I sang, about the things that I knew of back then / and some kids who heard, saw me in them / at a time in their lives when music was everything, it was everything. And, Hayden continues to write of the things he knows now, telling tales of parenthood and a domestic lifestyle. He’s grown and matured – and so have we fans who can still find ourselves in his songs. Fortunately, Hayden did not hang up his guitar and strap: But I’m recording once again, while my kid is upstairs in bed / and I’ll admit that now and then, some nights when I’m strumming, or maybe just dreaming / music’s still everything / well, almost everything.
Out of obligation to my wife, I must offer up her observation that “Oh Memory” starts with an allusion to “The Nutcracker,” whether intentional or not. Well, maybe this “Nutcracker” reference is to help spur memories of our youth. “Oh Memory” seems to be about a deceased parent who is visually fading from the singer’s memory. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find the image of your face in my mind / oh memory, you’re so unkind. However, he finds solace in legacy: You’re in my favorite things about me / you’re how I hope to one day be / and sometimes I can really see you there / inside of that little stare.
“Rainy Saturday” could be a continuation of “We Don’t Mind” from his debut album. We find those familiar characters still together after almost two decades. The isolation of the lovers this time doesn’t appear to be lust, but more from the nesting that comes after decades of being together. After the thrill and excitement of new love fades, you’re faced with the choice: do you fight through the ennui of relationship, or do you cut and run? I don’t know how we did it, but we made it through the winter just in time / you know we really had it tough there baby / we really couldn’t catch a break / we both were just lying there waiting / like every day was a cold and rainy Saturday. Seems like Hayden would encourage sticking around until the storm passes.
The official “final” song on the album, ”Instructions,” is rather dark, even for Hayden. If you were hoping for him to provide instructions on how to live a happy life, you’ll have to look elsewhere, as this song addresses the issue of what to do with his body and notebooks of songs after he’s died – ashes to ashes.
Fortunately, the album does not end on such a bleak note. It fades off into the ether with a hidden track that this time does NOT provide instructions on how to make BLTs or mac & cheese. Rather, ”Us Alone” is a fully realized song that appears to be a continuation of “Motel” – indicating where the car ride has taken them, and conveying that even though life is heavy, sometimes unfair, it’s good to know that the power of music helped them overcome.
On November 11, 2013, I found out that Hayden was again coming to Pittsburgh. The performance was in a run-down venue known more for the quality of performers than the atmosphere. The stop was a late addition to the tour — just a convenient place to play, sandwiched between two other cities. It was a cold weeknight and the turnout was poor. The peeling walls of this old storefront and cobwebs in the corners of the high ceilings set the tone. Hayden and his band sat on sofas that looked as if they’d been discarded from front porches in a college-town. Something about this venue and scene served as a perfect complement to Us Alone … but also served as a reminder of how limited Hayden’s commercial success has been. I chatted with him a bit before the show — small chit chat. I just wanted to be sure to thank him for coming back to Pittsburgh, and for continuing to make music. For some of us, music is still – to borrow Hayden’s words – everything…well, almost everything.
View my original post including reviews of every Hayden album at The Hip Quotient
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