Canadian songwriter Hayden helped set the scene for the less traditional approach of the indie folk scene through his early cassette releases and later his masterfully arranged solo albums. With a unique low voice and bittersweet, understated tunes, Hayden developed a sound both rusty and pristine over the course of an oeuvre beginning in the mid-'90s and outlasting the trends of all the eras that he passed through. Seventh album Us Alone finds a grown-up Hayden stripping down his arrangements to their core, relying on spare folk-rock instrumentation to support his increasingly astute and mature storytelling songs. Even with just eight tracks, Us Alone packs in volumes of highly personal reflections, told with a sense of poetry, humor, and awareness that sets the songwriter apart and explains the longevity of his career. Album opener "Motel" rides a haunted, syrupy rhythm reminiscent of the bare-bones drumming on Neil Young's Harvest. The song's low-lit feel doesn't completely match up with its slowly unraveling lyrics, which eventually tell the story of a crying baby who will only be quieted by a midnight car ride. "Just Give Me a Name" is a story of infidelity, told from the chillingly calm perspective of the betrayed. At first the narrator doesn't want any details except for a name, but as the song goes on, maybe an address or what time the guy gets off work might be helpful, too. These captivating story-songs are brightened by relatively subdued instrumentation, with so few extra elements in the mix that when the occasional harmonica or organ shows up, it feels monumental. The album's centerpiece, "Almost Everything," is a disarming autobiographical recount of Hayden's story, from the early days of opening for friends' bands to the birth of his daughter, with frantic international gigs and meeting his heroes touched on in the interim. It's a charming and open song, sung perfectly in his mumbly voice, imperfect but undeniably warm. Perhaps more than at any other point in his discography, Us Alone taps into that warmth and sweetness. Stripped down but nonetheless gorgeous for it, the album is an inviting combination of heavy themes and unassuming delivery, and easily some of Hayden's most colorful and intriguing songwriting.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas