In my experience as a music lover, I have learned that sometimes I find albums and sometimes albums find me. Hayden’s fourth album, Elk-Lake Serenade, found me just a few years after its 2004 release and I am very glad that it did. At the time, I was going through a rough winter in a small Vermont town and this collection of songs helped me keep going. The loose, inviting, and natural tone of Elk-Lake Serenade creates a strong contrast to Hayden’s intense, arresting, and cathartic 1996 debut, Everything I Long For. Despite notable differences in overall attitude and vocal delivery, these two albums share many of Hayden’s hallmark artistic strengths including thought provoking varieties of subject matter, unusual song structures, and inventive narrative perspectives. With Elk-Lake Serenade, Hayden made good on the promise he showed early in his career by crafting a mature, distinct, and adventurous album that contributes to and advances the canon of great folk-rock albums.
Elk-Lake Serenade opens with a trio of songs that set the stage for the album’s well-paced mix of relatively brief songs of varying tempo and energy that cover a range of tones from warm, funny, and earnest to haunting, heart-breaking, and absurd. The album opens with “Wide Eyes,” a stately, surprisingly formal ballad decorated with string flourishes and anchored by a stern piano figure that serves as a reminder of Hayden’s knack for minimalist storytelling. Just as the last notes of piano fade into silence, “Home by Saturday” kicks into gear with a mid-tempo folk-rock arrangement, beautifully offset by a great pedal steel guitar part, that grants the speaker confidence as he reassures his lover that he won’t succumb to the lures of going on tour while addressing with empathy the challenges they each face while he is away. Beginning with a gentle, chiming guitar progression, “Woody” expands quickly into a sweet little folk song dominated by acoustic guitar strumming and harmonica. On the first listen, you might not catch that this song is about Hayden’s pet cat because the bemused, resigned, yet loving spirit of the song could just as easily apply to feelings toward a close friend or a family member. Closer to the middle of the set, “Hollywood Ending” provides the album its strongest uptempo number while taking the cake for oddball concepts by illustrating what could be a fever dream or just a clever rumination on the cultural obsession with mainstream entertainment. In the second half of the album, two songs offer unique perspectives on domestic life that highlight Hayden’s ability to eschew the platitudes common to many songs about life at home. “Through The Rads” clips along a pretty good pace with subtle percussion and textured instrumentation as the speaker describes the unease, conflict, and apathy he feels hearing his neighbors fight through the radiators of the house they share. “My Wife” features a driving tempo that balances nicely with the speaker’s defiant, protective, and scathing rebuke to an old friend visiting town who would benefit greatly from moving on and growing up. Both of these songs demonstrate Hayden’s brevity and concision as a writer that is consistent throughout the album. Hayden makes his point, moves on, and ensures that no song wears out its welcome. Somehow, despite the tonal shifts and seemingly abrupt changes in subject matter, the album’s center holds.
Hayden’s first album left a strong impression on a close friend of mine in the late 1990’s and I enjoyed the songs I heard from it, but I lost track of his music after that. When Elk-Lake Serenade found me, I felt like I had run into an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. In many ways, the differences between Hayden’s first and fourth albums bear the marks of his respective ages when he made each of them. Everything I Long For sounds like a smart, emotionally complex twenty-five year old working through, among other things, being an angry young man in much the same way that Elk-Lake Serenade sounds like a smart, contemplative person in his early-thirties taking a moment to reflect on the bizarre, beautiful, and confounding world around him. Elk-Lake Serenade found me in a lonely town during a harsh winter while I was working through a very challenging time in my life, but listening to these songs made those cold nights pass a little more easily. Listening to this album feels like sharing an evening with a good friend you haven’t seen for a while. The conversation rambles into directions you may have never predicted, but the stories are great and it all reminds you of why you have been friends for so long. I may have been short on friends where I was living when this album found me, but listening to it, then and now, reminds me of the tremendous value of both lasting friendship and wonderful music.
- John Parsell