Artists need to evolve. It’s no big secret. Bands like Radiohead and Wilco have made careers out of defying expectations and changing with the times, or more accurately, changing ahead of the times. But most other artists change at a much slower rate. Take Hayden for instance. The Canadian singer-songwriter has been doing the sad sack with an acoustic guitar thing for eight years. Though he’s made a name for himself with his brand of lo-fi acoustic gloom, he knew when it was time to make a switch. And so he did.
This new version of Hayden can be heard loud and clear…okay, subdued and clear, on Elk Lake Serenade, the singer’s fourth album. If you’re thinking, “it sounds just like the old Hayden,” you would be correct. But there’s a certain sense of joy and contentedness that was missing from previous albums. The Closer I Get was, more or less, a complete bummer. Only a handful of upbeat tunes saved the album from being absolutely depressing. But on Elk Lake Serenade, Hayden sounds happier.
It’s kind of ironic that Hayden comes off sounding chipper (for Hayden, anyway) because, lyrically, the album only occasionally strays from themes of lost love. Though, even here, there are some brighter moments. “Woody” is a folksy, harmonica-led ode to a dog. The catchy “Hollywood Ending” is a tale of a movie star and her fan caught in a murderous love triangle (it’s not as brutal as it sounds). And “Roll Down That Wave” is a brief, four-line meditation on being somewhere with someone and how right it feels.
Musically, Serenade is simple. Most songs are acoustic guitar-based originals, for which Hayden is known best. “Home by Saturday” is one of the more country-ish songs, accompanied by lap steel. “Wide Eyes” opens the album with a melancholy, but gorgeous, piano melody. But Hayden occasionally plugs in and turns it up to eleven, like the rockin’ “My Wife.” These moments are scarce, but the grace and beauty of the rest of the material is enjoyable enough not to need to be interrupted by distortion.
Elk Lake Serenade is a beautiful offering by the Toronto-based singer-songwriter and it couldn’t have come at a better time. With albums by Iron and Wine, Sufjan Stevens and Bonnie “Prince” Billy garnering so much attention, Hayden will fit right in, simply by doing what he’s been doing for eight years. But this time around, he sounds a lot more comfortable. And if you listen carefully, you just might hear him smiling.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.