The music industry has a way of chewing artists up and spitting them out; today’s buzz band is tomorrow’s bargain bin, and the more easily digestible the art the more viciously the cycle churns. Luckily for Toronto-based singer-songwriter Paul Hayden Desser, then, his raw and emotively chaotic compositions have always rewarded deeper contemplation.
His career has been his own — for better and worse — as he has made music on his own terms over the years. The thing is, his terms have resulted in an almost systemic neglect of the strategies often employed to build and maintain an audience, even as he consistently creates the sort of intimate, touching tracks that record companies love to insert into witty, emo television shows (See: Jeff Buckley / Finley Quaye, etc.).
Hayden’s itinerant artistry is like Old Faithful, not as timely as fans might hope but always worthy of the wait. It has been five years since the artist last visited Washington, D.C., but he arrives at DC9 alongside two bandmates and to a warm welcome from longtime fans. And, welcomed as well by a stark white neon light that is both the name of his excellent February release — Us Alone — and a meta statement upon the moments at hand.
Those assembled on this cold, Movember evening are holding their coats and quietly anticipating his return. It’s the kind of night where Bailey’s and hot chocolate would be welcomed, in front of a fireplace with a blanket and a book. And, of course, with some thoughtfully poignant music on the Hi-Fi…which just so happens to approximate what we’re about to experience, warm house lights standing in for the fireplace.
Glasses of red wine and water await on stage, symbolically appropriating the moment with its adult choice in adult beverages. And, finally, the well-groomed prodigal son of sorts returns, grey-flecked hair marking his 42 years and highlighting how long it’s been since 1995, when Neil Young was praising his raw, much buzzed-about debut record.
He starts on keyboard, the craggy intensity of his early 20s having been tumbled by the rivers of time. We’re nodding along, intently absorbing the changes and noting that while his demeanor may have smoothed a bit, sudden shifts of his head and aggression on the keys reminds us of the (once youthful) vigor that remains integral to his idiosyncrasy.
His approach has always benefited from its minimalism, its ability to do more with less. The trio on stage continues this tradition, using effects pedals appropriately, employing shakers on a drum stick, and switching ably between instruments to best match each musician to the moment. It doesn’t take long for everyone to warm up, on stage and off, and by the second song — “Almost Everything” — the groove has been located.
The new songs present very well, some with the refined restraint that is characteristic of earlier Wilco records. These songs take their time, but do not plod. They’re contemplative and reasoned recollections of an artist who knows where he started, where he is, and where he’s going, even as he navigates this road with his eyes closed.
It’s been a long time since our paths have crossed, the long-displaced Metro Cafe in the late 90s and Buffalo’s Nietzsche‘s a few years prior. But not so long as to forget how perfectly his lyrical music cuts its way through the fog of daily existence. Not so long that he doesn’t still display a bashfulness on stage that dissipates over the course of the show, displaced by increasingly witty and always wry humor between songs.
“Rainy Saturday” amps it up, the hollow body guitar jangling us to attention and the catchy chorus immediately turning it into a toe-tapping mouth-along, soon becoming a sing-a-long as the audience commits the phrase to memory, “Don’t know how we did it but we made it through the winter just in time.” The synth is straight out of The Cars, but the quick, controlled guitar strokes are distinctively Hayden.
He breaks out an acoustic guitar for “Bad As They Seem,” its whimsical and wistful malaise taking on heightened immediacy as he approaches the age referenced ages ago, when turning 43 seemed further than the moon itself. Time has shortened those horizons, his gravelly voice still chopping its way forward, but now with more velvety texture than when it was freshly unburdening his deeply pained soul.
He reaches far into his catalog, grasping “I Should Have Been Watching You” and offering up a wry introduction, “I really like this song. I know, I wrote it, but I really like this one.” His memories are ours; we all have that memory, a lamentation framed in hazy warm light, its permanence instagrammed into our existence, simultaneously true and false.
His dreams channel our own, “Now my dreams are your dreams / all I want is you.” It’s a new song but an old sentiment, one the audience joins whole- and broken-heartedly, their melancholy vocal assist in the key of (Jeff) Tweedy.
As we’re all in this together, Desser’s comfort level improves and his humor shines, effortlessly moving the mood from the realm of the wistful lament to that of absurdist comedy “This is kind of loosely about a home invasion. I guess there aren’t a lot of songs written about that…” His statement seems unassailable both for its certitude and its tenor, highlighting the familial relationship between comedy and tragedy.
His voice itself channels that humor; he jokes about never sounding excited, even while saying he’s excited. It’s the monotone voice of Steven Wright‘s DJ K-Billy in “Reservoir Dogs,” its stark detachment the polar opposite of deeply personal lyrics trawled from a deep reservoir of emotion.
In the end, he goes back to the beginning, playing the song that probably first piqued most of his audience’s interest. “In September” is the closest thing to a grunge song in the Hayden catalog and it also has the alacrity of a punk proverb, spewing and lashing and firing up our juices before coming to an abrupt and cathartic halt. And just like that, having given from his soul, he retreats from the spotlight, slipping into the cold night’s embrace like Keyser Söze, his reappearance in these parts uncertain, at best.