Paul Wong
three and a half stars

Skyscraper National Park

Hardwood Records

When Hayden first appeared six years ago, sounding like the Leonard Cohen of the Toronto suburbs, with an album he had recorded in his parents” basement, many were excited. He wrote fuzzy guitar rockers, bittersweet ballads, and morose love songs about his girlfriend sleeping over when his parents were away all sung in a leathery baritone. He was the slacker troubadour: Lovesick, folky and moody but with a bit of a taste for noise. He reappears in Skyscraper National Park sounding like Townes Van Zandt”s soporific Canadian nephew. Skyscraper is a gradually-developing album whose slow harmony, restraint and depth pull one in further and further with every listen.

The opening track “Streetcar” sets the tone and the tempo for the record. Slight acoustic riffs, soft piano and nearly-mumbled vocals portray a slow desperation that recurs throughout the album. “Looking for You in Me,” the lone track that may pass for a single, is familiar territory for Hayden. It is a tormented-tormentor love song that sketches an outline of a dysfunctional relationship: “You”ve heard from so many men / you still want to hear it said / so you can feel some control,” then Guess it”s all for the best / I only wanted sex / and I think that you knew.” Heavy stuff, yes, but immediately (if strangely) engaging. Hayden”s characteristic drawling growl becomes a parched falsetto on “Long Way Down.” The song gets haunting when acoustic scratchings are joined by the slightest slip of horns and strings and the feelings of loss and regret that drive the song become palpable: “When it gets late / sometimes I see your face / baby it”s a long way down.” “Bass Song” a narrative set to jaunty piano and maraca about a botched burglary where the singer falls to his death brandishing a bass guitar to fight off the intruders offers a break from the wistfulness that pervades many of the songs. Along with the Beach Boys-ish “Carried Away,” it is needed to keep the prevailing pensive mood from becoming tedious.

“Dynamite Walls” however, is the centerpiece of the album. The song picks up momentum along the way, moving from a few lonesome strums of guitar to a drive-along melody that does not fully take until over four minutes into the song it could be an outtake from The Tragically Hip”s Phantom Power. It is a sloping guided tour of the western Canadian highways, “The mountains approach / there are more winds in the road / and the air turns to falling snow.” This is the most even album that Hayden has made, and although it sags in places not even the ridiculous slide-guitar riff can save the broodish “Step Into Miles” from being a sub-Arab Strap bore it is strong evidence that Hayden is one of the best North American singer-songwriters of his generation.

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