Album: Hayden

Elk-Lake Serenade, LOOSE
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The Independent Culture

There's a desultory quality to the Toronto singer-songwriter Hayden's vocals - part Neil Young fragility, part Bill Callahan deadpan - that matches his knack for writing songs that nonchalantly capture significant moments as if he'd just stumbled over them by accident rather than design.

There's a desultory quality to the Toronto singer-songwriter Hayden's vocals - part Neil Young fragility, part Bill Callahan deadpan - that matches his knack for writing songs that nonchalantly capture significant moments as if he'd just stumbled over them by accident rather than design.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, though. On his fourth album, Elk-Lake Serenade, Hayden devises a series of subtly textured arrangements that gently illuminate the matter at hand - be it the ghostly encounter with a dead girl's spirit in "1939", the differing reactions to crumbling relationships in "Robbed Blind" and "Starting Over", or the social quandary faced in "Through the Rads", about having to greet neighbours as if nothing is amiss when you've just heard them arguing through the wall.

The basic sound relies on Hayden's sparse piano and guitar lines - sometimes rolling folk-rock arpeggios, sometimes just a vibrato throb - with occasional tints of pedal steel guitar, strings and horns. In places, it recalls Tindersticks, or the Penguin Café Orchestra, but mostly it brings to mind Neil Young, whose influence seeps through "Home by Saturday" and "Roll Down That Wave". But it's a few albums since Neil wrote songs as pungent and distinctive as these. Take "Wide Eyes", in which a man asks a fellow bus passenger to masquerade as his lover to help him save face in front of an old girlfriend, only to be surprised by the stranger's eager acquiescence. There's something oddly vulnerable, yet proud, about his plea, "Wrap both of your arms around me/ And act like I'm all that you need", that gives Hayden's character an authentic emotional depth lacking in most of the cardboard cut-out cast of Young's Greendale.

There's a lot more actually happening here too, and much more concisely, as Hayden skips nimbly from the slurry, whimsical warmth of "Woody" to the sombre "This Summer". There are even songs about things that nobody's ever written about before, such as finding yourself in the middle of a movie shoot, acting out cliches on auto-pilot, as if the action were real and unscripted ("Hollywood Ending").

But it's the emotional honesty of Hayden's observations that rings true through Elk-Lake Serenade, partic-ularly his eye for tracking the more unusual twists and attitudes of relationships such as that of "My Wife", in which a husband gloats over the unrequited affection wasted by a visiting ex-lover of his wife. "You're treating both of my kids like a prize that was taken away from you," he complains, fuming at the visitor's unwelcome attentions, before spitefully dismissing his rival. It's as real as life itself: love, anger, devotion and contempt, all braided together in the space of a few minutes.

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