Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor always has been an introspective songwriter. Over his eight studio albums released as HGM, Taylor has developed a talent for opening the window to his soul in his lyrics, being both honest and revealing without delving into overexposure. Last year’s magnificent “Heart Like A Levee” was a heartfelt exposé that dealt with separation, reconciliation and communication through the lens of a touring musician and family man. HGM’s latest, “Hallelujah Anyhow,” finds the songwriter accepting of life’s twists and turns is and his resolve to stay true to himself through it all.
Taylor has been writing music since his teens and has steadily been putting out folk-rock gems as Hiss Golden Messenger since 2008’s “Country Hai East Cotton.” For the longest time, he was an unheralded but vital member of Durham, North Carolina’s musical scene, collaborating and befriending artists such as Tift Merritt and Brad and Phil Cook of Megafaun.
Many people were first turned on to to his earnest artistry with last year’s “Heart Like A Levee,” a critical and commercial pinnacle for Taylor and his band. “Hallelujah, Anyhow” continues the upward trajectory of Taylor’s songwriting and he capitalized on the musical momentum from “Heart Like A Levee” by bringing back many of the same musicians to help bring his most recent vision to light.
The album starts off with the crisp “Jenny of the Roses,” a mid-tempo frolic that is as bright as it is comforting. Taylor’s reedy tenor always has nestled nicely in HGM’s folk-rock pocket and his voice harmonizes beautifully with the pastoral weavings of the guitar and piano as he sings, “Didn’t it rain?/ Didn’t it thunder?/ O’er ribbons of highway/ And you were caught under.”
Bassist Brad Cook, keyboardist Phil Cook, guitarists Chris Boerner and Josh Kaufman, saxophonist Michael Lewis, multi-instrumentalist Scott Hirsch and drummer Darren Jessee really developed a fruitful bond on “Hallelujah, Anyhow” that is so compassionate and understanding of Taylor’s stories that they are as vital to the telling of his tales as the lyrics. They find a nice, persistent stride on the searching “Lost In The Darkness” and they match Taylor’s contemplative thoughts with an unhurried, nighttime stroll in “Gulfport You’ve Been On My Mind.”
The band’s most impressive moment comes in the beautiful “John The Gun.” Finger-picked guitar wraps itself around your heart like angelic thread and pulls you through a sublime mist of spirituous slide guitar, tender piano and enchanting saxophone as Taylor speaks of the song’s central character. Depending on your take, or maybe your mode, John’s story is either tragic or joyful and the band expertly manages to craft a soundscape as gorgeously impressionistic and nebulous as the lyrics.
No matter your take on the overall bend of the song, what is certain is that John accepts who he is and is resolute in remaining true to who he is, despite his lot in life. “I may be bruised and battered/ I’m a beggar/ I’m a real good dog,” confesses Taylor at the beginning of the song, though despite all of this, “In this deeply gone world/ Babe I’m singing/ Singing my song.”
This I-am-what-I-am sentiment is woven throughout “Hallelujah, Anyhow.” Where “Heart Like A Levee” questioned some of the decisions he’d made in his life, Taylor seems more accepting of where those decisions have led him. He acknowledges the burdens he’s bestowed upon himself in “I Am The Song” and is honest about how he doesn’t want to hide from his vulnerabilities in “Jaw.” for they are as much a part of him as anything else. “It’s there in the jawline/ Of my son and my daughter/ It’s the way that I testify/ About my mother and father/ It’s the way that I rise with my partner,” sings Taylor over a serene, contemplative melody.
“Domino (Time Will Tell)” is Taylor’s definitive statement of accepting the life of a touring artist. “Give me a fiddle and flat-top guitar/ Give me the gospel of the jukebox/ In the Lost Horse Bar I’m smoke again/ We’ll be alright tonight,” sings a jovial Taylor over a chugging, country-blues rhythm that boogies like a delighted Rolling Stones.
By the closing “When The Wall Comes Down,” the burden of questioning himself and the ways of the world have fallen from his shoulders, an acceptance that plays out in the song’s relaxed vibe. Life and its series of complex events is indifferent to what or who people are and Taylor concedes the only thing he can worry about is being himself. “Step back, Jack, from the darkness/ But while I’m here/ I’m gonna sing just like a songbird,” Taylor sings.
It’s advice that Taylor slowly has been realizing over the course of his prolific songwriting with Hiss Golden Messenger. You can trust it is a life lesson that hasn’t come easily to the songwriter, but “Hallelujah, Anyhow” is as good a place as any to start learning it.
- M.C. Taylor
Release: Sept. 22, 2017