I Laugh, But Not Too Hard, and I Look, But Not Too Far - Hayden's The Closer I Get turns 20

Unless I’ve manufactured this memory, the first time I can recall seeing a copy of Hayden’s The Closer I Get was at a record store in the Cherry Vale Mall, in Rockford, Illinois. I remember seeing it, and recognizing Hayden’s name—I knew it from the theme he recorded to the idiosyncratic 1996 Steve Buscemi vanity project Trees Lounge. I looked at the CD, looked at the tracklist on the back, and then I placed it back in the H’s.

20 years later, I wonder if I had bought it at this point, probably within its first year of release, if it was an album I would have understood and appreciated as a 15 year old—if it’s the kind of thing that I would have carried with me from my teenage years into young adulthood, or if it’s the kind album that I wouldn’t have identified with, and would have struggled to make any kind of connection to.

In 2003, I bought a used copy of The Closer I Get from a second hand record store in Dubuque, Iowa. It would have been during the latter half of my second year in school, and it was a bit of a blind buy; I saw the cover art and instantly recognized it, and when I got it back to the dorm and placed it in my gigantic, clunky five-disc CD changer, and heard the pensive first guitar strums of the titular track, I connected with the album immediately.

I still do, every time I listen to it. It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite records of all time.

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Hayden Desser’s debut full length, released in 1995, was titled Everything I Long For, and three years later, on his sophomore outing, there is still an awful lot of longing. I realized that recently, listening to the album with a more critical, or at least a more thoughtful ear, as opposed to sitting with it for enjoyment.

The only record of Desser’s to be backed (in America, anyway) by a subsidiary of a major label, it’s also probably his best, or at least most satisfying, from start to finish, and it finds Desser, only in his late 20s at the time it was released, making gigantic growth as a songwriter and performer, while working with a whole stable of producers, recording in various locales, and still managing to create a record that works as a cohesive whole full of both tension and release.

I wasn’t familiar with Desser’s earlier, more esoteric debut, or the EP that followed, prior to listening to The Closer I Get—so my introduction to Everything I Long For was listening to the 20th anniversary reissue of it in 2015. One of the things that really struck me about it was how much dissonance and anger he packed into a number of the songs—dipping into this very unsettling, shouty register with his voice that would have been startling to hear upon its release, sure, but was most definitely starting 20 years after the fact—it certainly had not aged well, and it was comforting to know that he had grown out of it, and in a relatively quick fashion.

Throughout The Closer I Get, Desser paints incredibly vivid portraits with his lyricism, and he really wastes no time, getting right to business in the album’s titular opening track—“When I said I would try to be calm, I lied to prove myself wrong,” he begins, in a half-mumble as the song eases effortlessly into a very slow, shuffling, trudging rhythm behind him. “The truth is in the details, and the writing’s on the wall,” he continues. “And the closer I get to being strong—the less to go wrong.”

Of the album’s 13 tracks, two of them are instrumentals, and of the 11 remaining, a number of them are steeped in a sense of melancholic longing. The cumbersomely titled “The Hazards of Sitting Beneath Palm Trees” finds Desser at a beach, narrating a scene where the object of his (presumably unspoken) affection is attracting the attention of a number of others—“And just before you reach me—he speaks,” Desser sings. “His face is red, and he’s talking to breathe. You get up to leave as the sun hits the trees, and you jump in the water with him at your feet.”

The same unspoken affection, though in a slightly more romantic, or well-meaning framing, arrives in the country and western tinged “Two Doors,” where Desser tries to catch the eye of a woman he sees checking into the same hotel he’s staying in—it turns out they are staying in rooms that are side by side—rooms that are connected through the doors inside that lead from one room to the other. He never really works up the courage to even speak to her, however; through the paper-thin walls of the hotel room, he hears what movie she’s watching on the television, and he chooses to watch the same thing.

There’s a similar image constructed in the song that immediately follows it, “Between Us to Hold”—vivid and sparse, Desser recalls trying to teach someone (presumably a girlfriend) how to play the guitar over the course of many long sick days.

Just because Desser grew out of that shouty, angsty, and dissonant method of singing doesn’t mean that this is a fragile and quiet folk record—far from it, at times, as he steers songs into a ramshackle, indie rock snarl—you hear bits of it in the album’s first half on “Hazards,” but it really kicks in at the start of what could be looked at as the second half of the record, on “Better Off Inside,” though this is merely conjecture on my part based on the way the album is musically structured; the liner notes split the album up into two sides, and the second half begins with the acoustic and sparse “Between Us to Hold.”

Either way you look at it, the second half of The Closer I Get isn’t the ‘louder’ side of the record—not at all, really. It’s just happens that “Better Off Inside,” is, like, the one final loud gasp before Desser begins bringing things down for a somber conclusion.

After the second instrumental of the album—“Instrumental With Mellotron,” which is slightly more emotionally built than the wandering and hazy “Waiting For A Chance to See Her,” the final four songs really work to close The Closer I Get on a very introspective note—the meditative, mantra-like rumination on the death of Elvis Presley on “Memphis,” and becomes incredibly cinematic with the tumbling piano and string arrangements of  “Nights Like These.”

Desser revisits a track from the 1996 EP Moving Careful with the growing desperation of “You Are All I Have”—here, cleaned up quite a bit and strummed out at a noticeably more even pace, it also features slightly more additional instrumentation along side his tense acoustic guitar. The growing anxieties of the song’s very plainly stated, stark, and almost dangerous lyrics are among the darkest on the record—“If you go away, I don’t think that I will survive. I’ll wait outside the front door till you arrive,” he sings, then later, changes the lyrics in the song’s final verse—“You’re stronger than me, I have just realized. You won’t be outside of the door till I arrive.”

The Closer I Get ends with a very simply structured acoustic song, “I’ll Tell Him Tonight,” though its very basic strumming is juxtaposed against what may be some of the most vivid and impressionistic lyrics Desser has penned—reflecting back on a traumatic childhood memory involving who is, presumably, a younger and possibly troubled sibling. “I remember the day it came,” he begins. “Flashing lights and sirens rang—they took you, and put you inside.” Then, later, “How come everything has to change? I wish were four and six and in the rain. When we were six and eight, we dressed the same.”

I’d never consider The Closer I Get to be a dark record; it certainly can be moody, but in the way it closes, very matter of factly, with “I’ll Tell Him Tonight,” it leaves the listener with a weighty, haunting feeling—again, much like that sense of longing, is something I never really picked up when listening to this record with an analytical ear turned off.

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I sometimes wonder if the reason I think that The Closer I Get is Desser’s most approachable or listenable record is only because it’s the first one I heard, and therefore, had the most connection to. In 2004, I blind bought the then just released Elk Lake Serenade, and I definitely did not connect with it—I don’t remember really enjoying any of the songs on it, and to this day, I couldn’t tell you why. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I have also sat down with Desser’s two most recent albums, as well as the reissues of Everything I Long For and Moving Careful—and none of these have had the immediacy, or the emotional resonance, that The Closer I Get has.

Was 1998 Hayden Desser ‘peak Hayden’? I don’t know. Is this the album that was supposed to break him in to the U.S. and make him a household name—I’m not sure. But being on a Universal Records ‘hip’ subsidiary certainly implies that was the case, however, that is not what happened.

Desser still, to this day, remains an elusive figure with a cult following in the United States, and as expected, he’s more or less, renowned in Canada, even though there, he’s still just elusive, though just more popular. His sparse Wikipedia claims that there have been a number of rumors about his passing, simply due to how reclusive he is capable of being—so much so that he has opted to let the Canadian label Arts and Crafts handle releasing and promotion of his last two efforts, as opposed to doing it through his own, long running, Harwood imprint.

The Closer I Get is one of those records that is representative of not just one time, but at least for me, two times—the time that produced it, and the time that I found it, or rather, it found me. It’s an emotional record, yes, but it brings you to the brink of something, and then pulls you back—never sending you over the edge into tears or hysterics, which is just one of the ways Desser shows the kind of control he brought to the songwriting and crafting of the record.

There are records that I consider to be among my favorite that are also ‘important’ records to both the artist, as well as to the history and evolution of contemporary popular music. Is The Closer I Get one of those? I can’t speak to that. It’s not important enough to Desser to have been given the 20th anniversary reissue treatment; it was, however, released on vinyl for the first time in 2014 as part of Record Store Day in Canada, limited to 1,000 copies—the least expensive of which is going for $140; the most expensive (still sealed) is double that.

Evocative, almost too personal at times, and pensive in its tone, The Closer I Get isn’t a perfect, or flawless record—I never claimed it was. But it’s a transformative artistic statement, albeit a subdued one, with an thought provoking nature that resonates much louder than the music found with in, stretching out through time farther than the expected shelf life of pop music.

You can still order The Closer I Get on CD from the man himself.