Hiss Golden Messenger, Hallelujah Anyhow
M.C. Taylor doesn’t have a southern accent — he’s from southern California. But you might not realize as much listening to Hiss Golden Messenger, the alternative country band in which Taylor serves as lead vocalist and principal songwriter. Like many of the guitar-wielding troubadours of contemporary country, Taylor plays slide guitar, sings about God, whiskey, and women, and likes to stick with standard time and verse-chorus structures.
But Taylor isn’t Hank Williams, and Hiss Golden Messenger isn’t The Carter Family. Instead, the singer-songwriter has imbued HGM, which formed in 2007 out of Durham, North Carolina, with a modern sensibility that draws from folk, rock, and blues as much as from traditional country. On Hallelujah Anyhow, Hiss Golden Messenger’s ninth studio album, Taylor has produced a mature, if mild, work of folk rock that surveys the diverse landscape of modern country.
The album opens with “Jenny of the Roses,” a characteristically rosy number that defines the tone of the record: up-tempo, broadly palatable, and effusively optimistic. “I’ve never been / afraid of the darkness,” Taylor sings, “It’s just a different kind of light.” He’s an evangelist preaching in the sun — “light” and “dark,” his favorite motifs, appear twenty-five times on seven of the record’s ten tracks. Taylor’s special sheen comes from a renewed faith that “love is the only way out.” It’s a refrain that echoes through the New South, where Taylor’s folk-country sensibility has found a home. In Durham, as in Nashville and Austin and Atlanta, transplants, like Taylor, have steered the rich musical tradition in a new direction with collaborative projects like HGM.
Still, for all its sonic virtues, the album suffers from timidity. Most songs combine genres but forge little new. Take the single “When the Wall Comes Down,” a lightly spiritual rocker that targets Trump obliquely with feeble innuendo. “Whatcha gonna do when the wall comes down?” the number asks, then answers: “What you oughta do is let it lie.” Passive anti-politics might suit Taylor Swift, but M.C. Taylor dances around current affairs less effectively. He’s a musician, the album makes clear, not a militant.
Though Hallelujah Anyhow won’t top the charts or many “best of” lists, Taylor has produced a worthwhile record that’s a good, albeit cautious, testament to the music of a new South.
September 22, Merge Records