For years now, Hiss Golden Messenger’s principal creative force, M.C. Taylor, has written songs that aren’t just earthy, they’re intrinsically of the earth. His music sounds harvested, not produced by man and man-made things. It feels deeply rooted, like that big old proud tree that towers over beautiful backyards in the South.
You could argue that Taylor’s been on a roll from the very beginning, and that’s probably true. But with Hiss Golden Messenger’s new album Hallelujah Anyhow, he continues a white-hot streak that started in earnest with 2013’s Haw, a dark, bottomless pool of a record that crystallized Taylor’s spiritual take on country, soul, blues and rock. His 2014 followup Lateness of Dancers and last year’s Heart Like a Levee were every bit as essential.
On Hallelujah Anyhow, he sounds more comfortable than ever before, and that’s saying something. Taylor’s songs are warm and well-worn. His band moves as a single organism. His lyrics are a dense tangle of knowing encouragement and artful allusions, and his sandpaper drawl pours out effortlessly. Taylor’s music soothes in these troubled times; he sounds ready — finally, perhaps — to be the soothsayer. “If you got a soul to sell,” he sings somewhere near the album’s midpoint. “I am the song.”
Musically, Hallelujah Anyhow is a beautiful patchwork of styles. “Domino (Time Will Tell)” is a swinging rock ‘n’ soul strut spiffed up with tinkling piano, slide guitars and horns. (This album’s horn arrangements are its low-key MVP.) The perfectly paced “Jenny of the Roses” evokes The Band, with its twangy undercurrent and easygoing urgency. And “Lost Out in the Darkness,” a punchy Americana jam, benefits from sturdy rhythms, satisfying harmonica and a ragged vibe.
In quieter moments, Taylor delivers stirring, gospel-tinged ballads (“Harder Rain”), downcast acoustic folk-blues (“Gulfport You’ve Been On My Mind”) and, on “Caledonia, My Love,” beauty so pure and intimate, you can practically feel the pluck of the mandolin and the hiss of brushed snare whispering through your ears and deep into your brain.
Through it all, Taylor is defiant in his own gentle way. A song called “John the Gun” starts out as an odd little acoustic idea, blossoms into something funky and jazzy, and ends with Taylor declaring: “In this deeply gone world, babe. I’m singing. Singing my song.” Later, he closes the album with the heart-swelling “When the Wall Comes Down,” ruminating on beauty and pain and the impermanence of man.
“But while I’m here,” Taylor sings as piano keys dance and guitar string bend around him. “I’m gonna sing just like a songbird.” Thank goodness. His is a song we need, now more than ever.