Elk-Lake Serenade is the kind of album Neil Young wishes he could still make. It's an intimate, heartfelt, and organic record with one foot in the lo-fi camp of Beck and Will Oldham and the other in the classic rock sound of Crosby, Dylan, Petty, and Young. Especially Young. Despite some outward appearances, Hayden isn't slavishly aping Neil Young here; it's more like they are dipping their ladles into the same mountain stream. Maybe he is a bit downstream from Young, but that's not a bad place to be. Hayden's lyrics are much more personal and clever than Young's, anyhow. Whether writing dorky odes to his cat on "Woody," breaking hearts on sad tracks like "This Summer," or sharing ghost stories on "1939," he keeps things pretty simple and true. The sound of the record is also true and arrow straight. Built on acoustic guitars with little splashes of color like handclaps, tooting horn sections, and subtle strings, the record sounds remarkably large in its smallness. Hayden is in fine voice, tender and sweet with a fragile quality. Listen to him caress the lyrics on a slow ballad like "Looking Back to Me"; he's a torch singer at heart. The mostly subdued tempos are very conducive to his late-night feel and never get boring, because he varies them by degrees and includes a couple songs like the loping "Hollywood Ending" and the thumping rocker "My Wife" to break the melancholic haze and give the album some excitement. Not that one comes to a Hayden record looking for excitement. You come looking for introspective tunes with a fresh sound and unique lyrical bent. Elk-Lake Serenade delivers on this expectation in full. It may just be his finest record yet.
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AllMusic Review by Tim Sendra