That’s where I’d love to begin

I suppose it’s natural that you’d start thinking about your death when someone tells the world you’ve passed away.

The death of Canadian musical mainstay Hayden is one of two polar extremes considered on the venerable Toronto musician’s latest album, Us Alone, which is hands down the best album released so far this year. See, when we last left him in 2009 he had issued a terrific new record but for a variety of reasons he neither toured nor did any media interviews about it. Sales must not have been too great, since the diminished public profile led some fool to edit his Wikipedia page to say that Hayden had actually died.

No doubt that one-in-a-million scenario got him thinking and it was evidently part of the motivation for Hayden to start recording again, it seems. He hadn’t really come up with any new music in the last several years but these eight songs (with the requisite “hidden track” tacked on; Hayden is so 90s) constitute a highly-focused affair that strips away any unnecessary flourishes, pushing simplicity to the forefront. One of the most striking examples is the remarkably lush and beautiful closing track, “Instructions,” a song no doubt inspired by the rumours of his demise. The nearly seven-minute track focuses on a rolling piano figure for the first 45 seconds as Desser literally tells his family what they should do when he dies.

“Here’s how I’d like things to go down,” he sings quietly, his usual vaguely-mumbly delivery all subdued and soft. “Please don’t leave me in the ground. Put all my ashes in a can and drive up north in the van, roll the windows down and play The Band.” He then requests his ashes to be thrown into the wind over a lake he used to swim at. “That’s where I’d love to begin,” he ends the first verse, repeating the line with the kind of solemnity that is impossible to fabricate. He later requests his notebooks be burned, resignedly admitting, “There’s nothing left that’s worthwhile.”

That kind of quietly-devastating lyricism has always been a hallmark of Hayden’s work and Us Alone is no different. “Instructions” sees electric guitar and organ, a spare hi-hat and snare drum part, and even some harmonica notes coming in and out of the mix in an almost-sporadic fashion over the last three minutes, those elements weaving together in a gorgeous, atmospheric fashion. Still, you get the sense that happens only to give the listener several more minutes to ponder the words they’ve just heard.

As unusual and impactful as that song is, however, the real theme of the record is life, specifically life as he’s living it right now. The album is very much a reflection on life as a father, husband, and musician and how those elements work (or don’t work) together.

Us Alone opens with a lyrical bait-and-switch, the song “Motel” starting off with some delayed guitar and a shuffling drum beat that stays more or less consistent for it’s entire six minutes. The song at first purports to be about a pair of young lovers setting up a secret affair at a little motel along the coast. After a few minutes he relents, admitting it’s a story he came up with while driving their inconsolable infant daughter around in the hopes that the car ride will finally put her to sleep and stop her wailing. “It’s pretty awful,” he reluctantly admits, “but one time we just might stay there and sleep through the night.”

Several songs here illustrate that fatherhood has become the central aspect of Hayden’s life, including the autobiographical retrospective “Almost Everything,” a nod to the title and content of his first record, Everything I Long For. His breakthrough first single “Bad As They Seem” was a laundry list of things he thought he wanted at that point in his life; “Almost Everything” begins by recounting those early days where “the music was everything” in his life. He recounts his pursuit of musical fame, the heights he reached, and how he eventually all but stopped making music after his child was born (and diagnosed with a rare chromosomal deletion syndrome which apparently monopolized his time and energy). He eventually achieves balance, as he apparently did in real life, conceding, “But I’m recording once again while my kid is upstairs in bed and I’ll admit that now and then that some nights when I’m strumming or maybe just drumming the music is still everything…well, almost everything.”

(Incidentally, Hayden deserves sincere kudos for his recording prowess. He taped everything on this album himself, in his own home, playing every instrument himself. His technique has all but been perfected by now; his snare has a very unique sound, his piano is deep and resonant, and he achieves a wide-open, atmospheric sound on several songs that’s unlike anything he’s ever put to tape; the album seems to reflect the character of the space it was recorded in. He also creates a uniformity throughout the record by keeping the tone of all the instruments consistent from one track to the next. That seems to be his stated objective as he’s claimed in interviews that songs on his previous records varied almost too wildly, some too jam-packed with different instruments and sounds.)

“Old Dreams” is also a picture of a man firmly ensconced in familial bliss. Over a dreamy piano figure and melody-matching electric guitar leads he talks about the least rock and roll emotion ever: domestic bliss. “Now my dreams are your dreams,” he sings on one of the mumbliest numbers here. “All I want is you to be happy. What did I waste all my time worrying about before this moment in my life?” The spare song is one of the loveliest here, all drifting sound scapes and fragile melodicism.

Even when he ventures from that kind of familial tranquility his ability to create an engaging story shines through. “Blurry Nights” may be a holdover from his pre-married days, a recounting of a drunken evening that went quite right. “Out of my blurry nights ours was the one I liked most of all,” he remembers. “It’s okay that we had nothing to say; that didn’t get in the way, if I recall.” Telling the tale from both sides, Lou Canon takes over the female perspective, recounting how the female character went out searching for him after their tryst and how they eventually came together and had a deep discussion over drinks. “I don’t know how to do this,” they harmonize in the chorus, “but will you leave with me right now? Nothing good can ever come of this in the long run but let’s not dismiss all the fun we could have tonight if we forget how we might feel in the morning light.” The backing track pulses almost like a Spoon song and Hayden’s guitar has one of its most rock tones but that propulsive beat swirls and swells in the background, cutting through the obfuscation like a morning-after headache.

That sense of clarity might be Us Alone’s biggest achievement. For a guy who has been notoriously cagey about the inspiration and meaning behind his songs these numbers are straight-forward, both lyrically and musically. But even when he’s not messing around his songs have a pervasive beauty that other musicians could chase for a lifetime without achieving. It’s a crowning achievement that not only continues the progression and evolution of his career but also helps change the conversation in terms of what indie music in Canada talks about.

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