Hiss Golden Messenger - Hallelujah Anyhow

by Mark Moody Rating:10 Release Date:2017-09-22

M.C. Taylor and current company, operating as always as Hiss Golden Messenger, have put out the best album of his career on the heels of last year’s excellent Heart Like a Levee. This year’s, Hallelujah Anyhow, picks up where stand out tracks like ‘Say It Like You Mean It’ and ‘Highland Grace’ left off. Those earlier songs and this entire album find Taylor hitting his stride with his sound informed by folk, blues and gospel forms but not coming across as any of those. As with the giants that have gone before, like The Band and Van Morrison, he and his top-rate crew (fellow Durham, NC longtime cronies Brad and Phil Cook along with other regional musicians) come up with their own heady melange of impeccably played notes and blended harmonies, along with Taylor’s burnished vocals and graceful lyrics. He has clearly found his own sound and voice that carry for the full album.

Aside from developing his own style more firmly, Taylor seems more confident as band leader here than ever before. Though surrounded by talented musicians and vocalists, Taylor is the clear driving force here. He eschews duet like vocals on past songs to lead assertively with able assistance from the likes of Alexandra Sauser-Monning and Tift Merritt, who is a long time favorite of mine. As much as I would love to hear Merritt’s voice more prominently there is just no denying the necessity and power of Taylor stepping forward to be a more commanding presence. Perhaps most importantly what makes this a successful affair throughout is the undeniable sense of hope that pervades the entire proceedings. It makes whatever obstacles may be out there seem entirely surmountable - on the emotional core of the album, ‘Gulfport You’ve Been On My Mind’, Taylor states “you make it so simple like ringing a bell” as if all burdens have been lightened. It is easy to believe because he makes it impossible to deny.

The opening track, ‘Jenny of the Roses’, starts with a simple country shuffle and Taylor proclaiming “I’ve never been afraid of the darkness, it’s just a different kind of light” as he and his Jenny talk beside the wall. Which wall Taylor is referring to is uncertain, but early on he puts forth “the” wall not “a” wall and he returns to this image again at the end of the album. The album is not themed per se, but images of darkness, walls and borders recur as on the next track, ‘Lost Out in the Darkness’, as he sings about “a strange sweet kind of light, to be lost out in the darkness on the border.” It’s this acknowledgment of darkness in the world that he knows can’t ultimately contend or even invoke momentary fear that gives the album its calm power. There is a quiet spirituality at work here as well with mentions of the kingdom and the good news, which recall Van Morrison’s best 1980’s work on albums like Beautiful Vision and Avalon Sunset, where images of darkness and light also abound.

‘Harder Rain’ emerges as one of several piano driven gospel tinged songs, where Taylor pulls off his most brilliant juxtapositions of opposing forces. He leads with, “So you say you want it harder, like more than you can take. And I know you want to suffer…like there’s a debt you gotta pay.” Only to immediately follow with the reassurance of “That ain’t how the world was made, and you know that don’t ya”. It is important to note that the last phrase is spoken as a simple truth or command, not a question. In spite of Taylor’s self professed doubts it is clear that he believes in the ultimate triumph of good and removal of suffering through healing. This song is as complex a statement on this as any I have heard as he closes with “more pain won’t kill the pain” and repeated calls to “heal me.” A few songs later with “Gulfport You’ve Been On My Mind” the band plays so softly and sympathetically as Taylor recalls that he has “seen darker things than night” and asks to be given “the light”. Phil Cook’s soulful harmonica lead and expressive piano are the highlights of this simple hymn like song that could have easily expanded beyond its seemingly short four and a half minutes.

One of the punchier songs, ‘Domino (Time Will Tell)’ recalls the Allman Brothers at their most soulful or even Tift Merritt’s more gospel inspired tracks, like ‘Shadow In the Way’, off of her Tambourine album. The band is at its smoldering best here as Taylor knows his luck is turning and nothing will stand in his way. The Southern feel pervades with references to Memphis, Mobile and being on the Gulfport side. The song departs a bit thematically, but the joyousness of the music and soul-shouting backup by Tamisha Waden as the song fades out make up for it in spirit.

The album closes with two of its most beautiful and inspiring songs. Even though ‘Caledonia, My Love’ may be lyrically enigmatic the rolling piano chords, gently strummed guitar and delicate mandolin playing accompanied by Taylor’s hushed vocals are hard to resist. And when he and Merritt sing at the end that “freedom ain’t nothin’ unless you’ve been free” it is truly all that needs to be explained. The closer ‘When the Wall Comes Down’ serves as the perfect book end to the meeting by the wall of the opening track. Over simple guitar chords, Taylor asks “What ya gonna do when the wall comes down” and answers “what ya ought to do is let it lie…and vow to never go back.” The song breaks open on the phrase, “Step back Jack from the darkness” and if the line “I’m gonna sing just like a songbird” can be viewed as defiant of darkness that is exactly what it is here. A declaration of the sheer force of hope if there ever was one and accompanied by an appropriately soaring guitar solo. Given the snub that he gives to negativity, the black rose sneaking up on Taylor’s left elbow on the album cover doesn’t stand a chance.

There is not a weak track on the album and all avow that goodness will prevail in this life. Townes Van Zandt famously said there are only two types of songs - the blues and Zip-a-dee-doo-dah. This is meant as a sleight to happy songs which many songwriters have said are difficult to write. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah this album is not, but with the assertion that light will conquer dark, walls will fall, and borders will fade, Hiss Golden Messenger tackles the difficult task of not succumbing to the darkness as if it were the easiest thing in the world. In that he is extremely convincing in spite of the challenges of our day. Hallelujah Anyhow indeed!

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