San Francisco’s Sean Hayes is a man of many soft words — words he’s used to quietly become one of the best singer-songwriters in America. He’s in a small class of musicians like Joe Henry, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Eleni Mandell, Joey Kneiser, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, AA Bondy, David Dondero, and those folks who value the elegance of the pen with as much relish as they do stylishness of instrumentation. Of all those names, Hayes’ might be one of the least recognizable, but not for lack of production. His new record, “Before We Turn To Dust”, one of the best records of the year, is the artist’s sixth official album. It’s a marvelous follow up to 2010’s “Run Wolves Run”. With every new Hayes album, there’s a slight twist, a maturing artist finding different musical avenues to take in a career marked by nuanced creative curves and inventive back-alley ventures more-so than re-invention. Hayes blends velvety R&B and pop melodies with porch-front folk instrumentation, bluesy guitar, and fanciful baroque — all highlighted by a creaky rasp of a voice that unrolls with a natural, self-confident sexiness that’s as smooth as slow-poured brandy.
His first records, “A Thousand Tiny Pieces” and “Lunar Lust”, were full of personal, low-key songs. They were often, like the title of one of the songs suggests, a bit like smoke signals. Lyrics that came at you like little bursts of poetry, sometimes non sequitur, but always delicate and full of grace. He made a name among new fans for creating tracks for listeners who like to luxuriate in love, sadness, and meditative odes with a flourish for language and mood saturation. His songs speak for themselves. On “Gods Eyes”, off his first record, Hayes sung lines about shared empathy: “If you think you’ve had it rough in life, think again / Or is pain the same — Hey man, where’d you get it? / Where’d you get yours? / I’ll tell you where I got mine.” By the time he got to one of his most complete and accomplished records, “Alabama Chicken” (2003), he was still writing reflective songs but enlarging the grand scope of his music, like the dreamy “Moonrise”, a haunting harkening back to an Appalachian sound, led by the sound of a saw. The lyrics were worked over like whittling, down to the bare essentials of love, like a William Carlos Williams abstraction: “The moon is on the rise / The light is in her eyes / There is a white flower, against a red sky.” Even his end-rhymes were perfectly sculpted, like in the painterly “Balancing Act In Blue”: “A half an idea yesterday / Epic romance gone astray.”
The showpiece of that record, “Here We Are”, showed a writer reaching even further heights. The song is a simple folk tune, but with a rambling that can best be described by one of the images in the song itself: “ambling ambrosia”. Hayes sings these stream of consciousness verses that glide from pretty rhymes into a gourmet of imagery that moves gracefully in and out of humor, lushness, and synesthesia — ultimately punctuated by sensuality: “Mushroom mandolins / Kangaroo jars / Medieval things / Melodica sings / Crooning with bullhorns / The party begins / CC Rider and summertime cries / Operatic ladies, who sing about my mice / The drummers with sticks / Z she strips / Speed with the words / Fumbling from his lips.” Even his EP “Honeybees Falling” seems like it was created with a joy for lyrical construction. His song, “Day Falls Night Open”, is a sparse Nick Drake kind of track that circles around the romance of verses that gorgeously turn love and nighttime into a flowering: “When the day falls into night / I want to be there by your side / When the night opens into day / I want to be with you every way.” The trait of using blossoms and nature isn’t new to Hayes, as he even titled his 2007 record, “Flowering Spade”. The imagery of the title seems to branch into the songs, like “Time”, a meditative track about the joy of friendship: “Come with me awhile / Just be awhile / All that I have is time / We could find a willow tree, and climb the branch absurd / Sing to all those down below / Warbling like two Coo-Coo birds.”
Where Hayes’ previous record felt like the emergence of a rocker with a sensual urge, “Before We Turn to Dust” is even more contemplative — with songs that touch on the happiness of having a family, and the ethics of a modern economic world. That’s not to say he still isn’t feeling the need. “Bam Bam” is a playful, sexual song that’s a softer continuation of “Gunnin'” — both roughly about getting it on, and marveling at the beauty of women. The biggest difference between these latest two albums is the comfortable mood of “Before We Turn to Dust”, oftentimes accentuated by wonderful pianist Eric Kuhn, who can be heard prettifying the title track, and giving a funky contour to songs like the heavenly harmonic, “Live It” — a track that exists somewhere between a celebratory spiritual and New Orleans swing-time. “Lucky Man” is a dark blues dirge, opening en media res, with a lie and a robbery, ending with haunting chords and Hayes singing acapella: “I’ve been lied to / I’ve been robbed / Held up in the street / In the dark / I know I’m a lucky man / To have you / In my life.” The rolling piano filling the space between the verses, rolls on with an overcast edge.
The last song on the record, “Innocent Spring”, pairs Hayes with Be Good Tanyas member, Frazey Ford, in a child’s lullaby. Observing the beauty of a child sleeping is a fitting closer, that brings the album around full-circle, back to the opener and the notion of purity in youth. The title track and record opener sets the table for the rest of the album, as Hayes contemplates love for a wife and thoughts of a son growing up, and what kind of world a person wants to pass on to their children. It’s just that stage of a mature artist’s career, much like I heard in Eleni Mandell’s newest release, “I Can See the Future”. It’s not mature, as in age, but an intellectual, gratifying stage, that great musicians seem to reach when they find comfort in who they are and what they believe. Hayes would be the first to admit he doesn’t have all the answers, but the deep-down truths in “Before We Turn to Dust” can only be expressed by someone who knows where he stands: “You and your money / Bound to turn to dust / Not your love / You got your love / All that money, going to turn to dust / Where’s the love? / You got your love / Every moment, every breath / Your love.” Hayes is a musician who confounds expectations with each release, while remaining true to himself and his sound. And it’s a sound like no one else.