If you’ve been wondering what Hayden’s been up to, look no further than Us Alone, his first effort in four years. It’s a well-crafted collection for grownups, with fantasies of escaping the baby’s cries for just one night (“Motel”), confrontations over adultery (“Just Give Me a Name”) and advice on the disposal of his mortal shell and other worldly possessions (“Instructions”).
But if Hayden’s name doesn’t ring a bell, “Almost Everything” recounts his career in five measured moments. He sang for fun, he sang for friends, he sang for the sensitive kids who liked grunge and MTV Unplugged in equal measure: “The year was 1994/ They were cross-legged on the floor/ Listening to my bedroom lore.” He sang for Neil Young, he sang for David Geffen, he sang under more pressure and with smaller returns, and then he stopped singing and settled down. But now he’s got a home studio, where he can sing while his kid’s asleep, and he’ll sing for you if you seek out the hush and hum of his gentle pop.
Even in Hayden’s heyday, he was the sort of major-label underdog you had to seek out. On 1996’s Everything I Long For, his gift for imagining characters facing the worst — or overreacting to run-of-the-mill bad luck — is almost comical, but Hayden plays it deadpan every time. He wants you to feel for the guy in “Skates” who wants to find his wife’s body in the river, despite not being able to swim; you can tell by his howls. Likewise, Hayden mutters and yarls through “When This Is Over,” so you know it’s a shame that a mom is drowning her two young sons. But what of the kids who shove too many rocks up their noses in “Driveway,” or the abashed suitor whose rose loses its petals in “Stem”? Is their pain any less?
At its lowest points, Everything I Long For comes off as morose as Mark Eitzel, yet earnest like Eddie Vedder. But “Tragedy” is a glum gem, and when Hayden explores other moods, as on the content “We Don’t Mind” and the harsh “You Were Loved,” it’s obvious: He sings because he can. Who wouldn’t?