I’ll admit to not having kept up with Hayden Desser since the late ’90s, when records like Everything I Long For and Moving Careful boasted a certain miserablist charm. Based in Toronto, Desser may have been depressed about living so far away from Seattle, where his gravelly voice would have fit comfortably beside Pacific Northwest fixtures like Mark Lanegan and Layne Staley. Nevertheless, he managed to find a nice foil in the dark, rumbling notes he shook from his guitar, delivering slow, creaking ballads about feuding neighbors (“Pots and Pans”), obstructed airways (“Choking”), and morose ice skaters (“Skates”). The clouds of misery and lethargy were always thick, and while that usually worked in his favor, it also gave rise to some pretty pernicious A-A-A-A rhyme schemes. “Someone who’ll make me laugh / someone to be my better half / keep me warm under the sack / share with me my midnight snack” was one of many places requiring pardon, but Hayden’s bleak baritone voice usually earned it.
In Field and Town is the first Hayden record in four years, and it’s in keeping with the polished direction of recent full-lengths like 2004’s Elk Lake Serenade. The instrumentation hangs together in warm suspension – the pulsing bass hook, tidy snare, and rippling melody of the opening title track are eminently safe, catchy, and smooth, perfect for piping over coffee shop speakers. The upshot is that when Hayden’s vocals kick in – fragile even in the middle register – the risk of any flagrant overreaching has been eliminated. This mostly holds true as the record winds along – even as the bouncy, piano-driven “Van Song” invites a little leap to falsetto, or as “Did I Wake Up Beside You?” begins to wobble and lurch with a faint trace of On The Beach-style paranoia. The downside, of course, is precisely the same – In Field & Town has been scrubbed of surprises. Early Hayden fluctuated between coaxing winces and gooseflesh; the current incarnation hums along at a steady, even clip.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best tracks on In Field and Town feature the sparsest instrumental arrangements. A lot of these songs are built around simple but elegant piano melodies, and they’re often most effective when they don’t try to incorporate much more than that. On the lovely, aching “Damn This Feeling,” you can actually hear the damper pedal moving up and down, lending the track a wonderful late-morning, living room glow. “More Than Alive” is a bit more robust, but it doesn’t overdo its vibes, bells and trumpet. For better and worse, “Lonely Security Guard” sounds the most like vintage Hayden – a modest character sketch, it boasts both the close-focused attention to the everyday and the cringing lyrical contrivances that make his songs alternately affecting and exasperating.
I suppose it’s only natural that Hayden has evolved away from larynx-shredding exorcisms and prickly in-your-ear confessions, but I’m not sure that consistency is a worthy substitute. Even in its achiest moments, In Field and Town is unflaggingly pleasant but not a whole lot more.