Just after the midway point of Hayden’s new album, right about where you’d flip from Side A to Side B of the record, the singer-songwriter reflects on his previous life as a touring musician. “So I recorded and I sang / about the things that I knew of back then,” he sings, over swells of burnished harmonica that place you, aurally, in that early-to-mid-’90s moment when Tom Petty and Alanis Morrisette got airtime on alt-rock radio. Back then, Hayden was an indie-rock poster kid writing spare, anguished ballads that tapped into post-adolescent existential angst.
Almost two decades into his career, the disaffected 20-something has grown up and become a dad, and there’s a heaviness to his nostalgia. The songs on Us Alone highlight Hayden’s best qualities: dreamy arrangements that are layered without feeling too dense; murmured vocals brushed with fine-grit sandpaper; a keen lyrical focus that brings his hazy vignettes to life. As the mortality-confronting closer, “Instructions,” fades out, a hidden track showcases his deft writing: “A man out on delivery / of Kit Kats and Sweet Maries / passed by us on the street / playing a trumpet while steering with his knees.” On “Oh Memory,” snippets of other songs (an interpolation of an old gospel melody, a creaky waltz) carry the main melody, while ambient noises (wheels on gravel, a slamming door) echo in the background.
But while Us Alone is a return to form for a singer-songwriter who’s gingerly stepping back into the spotlight, it’s also stronger than anything he’s done to date: The themes here, from the fleeting, half-guilty intimacy between two exhausted parents (opener “Motel”) to the rejection of “bright lights” and “invites” in favour of quiet, shared devotion (“Old Dreams”), are deeper and more nuanced. Hayden’s still singing about the things that he knows—there’s just so much more at stake now.
Playlist picks: “Motel,” “Old Dreams,” “Instructions”