As anyone who has seen Hayden live
can attest, his performance isn't at all what you'd expect. In contrast to the quiet melancholy that permeates most of his studio work, on stage he's happy, he's bouncy -- he's even (though he'd never admit to it
) cute. As his last full-length, Live At Convocation Hall
, focused on that side of his personality, the biggest question mark hanging over Elk Lake Serenade
prior to its release was whether Hayden would continue in that lighter vein, or if he'd revert back to the form of his last studio album, Skyscraper National Park
The quick answer, on both counts, is yes: broadly speaking, Elk Lake Serenade continues with the quiet, melancholy folk that has characterized Hayden's career so far, but, as "Woody" (an ode to his wandering cat) shows, he has realized that he's allowed to smile every so often. Of course, many of his smiles are at ironic twists that only a true pessimist would find funny -- witness "Hollywood Ending", in which he's enlisted by his favourite actress to kill her husband, and gets away with it when the policemen he confesses to think he's telling them a joke. Similarly, there's definitely a darkly humorous undertone to "Killbear", wherein Hayden details the manner in which his old love was killed by a bear. Not exactly laugh out loud funny, of course, but with the right sense of humour (i.e. the one Hayden's live show would indicate he possesses) it could be hilarious.
Of course, this wouldn't truly be a Hayden album if he didn't do what he does best -- write intensely personal (yet simultaneously generally completely fictional) songs that somehow come off as pop-oriented folk. "This Summer", for instance, deals with the death of loved ones. It's touching without being too sentimental; his wish at the end that "All I hope is that the day I die I'm ready to face all that I've tried / And I follow you right behind so no one is left killing time" is sweet, but not maudlin. At the same time, the album's darker fare (such as "1939", in which Hayden sings about drowning a girl in his bathtub) doesn't dwell on gory details or try to push their downbeat elements over the top -- and in the process, Hayden ensures that the songs don't get bogged down by excessive morbidity.
This is a welcome artistic evolution for Hayden. In the past he seemed limited to sentimentality ("Stem" or "Between Us To Hold") or darkness ("Skates"). On Elk Lake Serenade, he pulls off both at once. It's definitely nothing like the laid-back experience of listening to him live, but it's his best album yet. Anyone who stopped paying attention after "Bad As They Seem" would be well advised to give Hayden another look.