Hiss Golden Messenger: Bad Debt

[4 February 2014]

By Justin Cober-Lake

Given his training as a folkorist, Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor might appreciate the lengthy route Bad Debt took in getting its proper release (but probably not). Taylor recorded the album’s songs on cassette in his kitchen in 2009 and 2010 not long after becoming a father. The original version of the record was assembled, but most of the copies were destroyed in the London warehouse fire a year later. Taylor, with Scott Hirsch (both from Ex-Ignota and the Court & Spark), continued on, re-recording some of this music in more expansive forms and releasing it as series of quality albums. Now Bad Debt gets a slightly expanded release and, hopefully, a proper warehouse.

It’s not the circuitous route to release that particularly ties Taylor’s folkore studies to Bad Debt. The album itself draws on the sorts of traditions that lend themselves to home-taping. I almost expect that Taylor Alan Lomax-ed himself on this one. The songs are rustic but developed, sparse but not lacking. Musically, Taylor situates his vocals and his acoustic guitar in a fairly broad “folk” lineage, but tied more to nameless performers than to any well-labeled tradition.

None of that should suggest that Bad Debt functions as an academic exercise. Taylor’s performances come through as a natural fit. It’s hard to separate the performance from the songwriting, where Taylor tackles a variety of traditional topics, particularly faith. The album doesn’t stick strictly to one spiritual tradition, but it tends toward Christian imagery. It opens with “Balthazar’s Song”, presumably—but not necessarily – a reference to one of the Magi, but it speaks as much as a request as it does as an offering.

Taylor’s reflections on faith are seldom simple, and there’s usually a bit of conflict in his work. Perhaps the best example of this tension comes with “Jesus Shot Me in the Head” (also one of the disc’s best songs). Here we see the gap between the singer in the song and Taylor as writer. Taken at its surface level, “Jesus” delivers an unusual but straightforward conversion narrative. The conversion takes place in a Motel 6 and, rather than seeing the light or something similar, the singer is shot in the head to come to Jesus. The delivery is direct and earnest, but Taylor’s lyrics suggest something more. There’s a sense that the key part of conversion is a turn to proper behavior (as defined largely by vices given up). It doesn’t always hold up, and the singer seems ultimately to be seeking a way through the pearly gates. The performance is a song about coming to Jesus; the song is a reflection on both the why and the sentiment behind conversion. The “Least I hope this is how it goes” is less certain than, say, Paul in Damascus. The addition of “since I’m just ‘bout out of breath” might refer to a singer running out of lung power for a given song or it might refer to a person at the end of his life, ditching his life to try to get somewhere better.

This sort of complexity supports much of Bad Debt. Coupling this writing with simple and effective music, Taylor creates something memorable. It’s as likely to serve folklorists as it was to have been delivered by one.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/178412-hiss-golden-messenger-bad-debt/