MC Taylor and Scott Hirsch — formerly of the Court and Spark — have been quietly making beautiful records for a few years now as Hiss Golden Messenger. Theirs is a sound that is deeply southern, tied to the land and the sounds that come from that land. It’s the music of unwinding after a long day, month, year — which is to say it is bittersweet, laid-back, lilting — but in unwinding it also exposes the worry one is taking a break from, the ones we are both trying resolve and distance ourselves from.
The band’s new album Haw, created with other great musicians like William Tyler and Nathan Bowles, seems at first to just refine elements from 2011’s Poor Moon and other earlier works. But Haw does much more than that. This is music with myriad dimensions and complex themes, but it never unravels or feels too heady. It’s an album that claims to be a “garland for the Southern Piedmont” on the back cover, but I’m not sure it’s quite that. It may represent the North Carolina soil it came from, but it doesn’t pay tribute to it so much as it creates a new musical land in its image, a music with its own topography of melody and emotion, built to mine the shadows of valleys and crags of mountains not for answers or solutions, but for the right questions.
It’s an album named after a river, or after a Native American tribe that disappeared — read: fought and killed by British settlers — and both work as interesting comparisons. Haw drifts and wanders, threads its way from song to song, and digs into pasts long gone, pasts that we seem to have left behind, the kind of heartache that disappears but is never forgotten. “Red Rose Nantahala” and “Sufferer (Love My Conqueror)” both seem to demand — the first to “let me be the one I want,” the second to “break every lock on every door” so he can “sing out loud.” They’re cries for freedom, but also self-definition, and each is driven by a long-standing pressure holding the singer back from those freedoms. In “Red Rose Nantahala” we have “preachers with their forked tongues” while in “Sufferer” we have the faceless, oppressive conqueror. Elsewhere, on “The Serpent is Kind (Compared to Man)”, a father teaches a child not to fear snakes in a world of men.
It’s worth noting that there is a connection in many moments of the record between physical work and these truths. In “The Serpent is Kind”, father and son work a field. The “sufferer” slaves away for that faceless power. But the beauty in Haw is how these moments of worry are jumping off points, not moments to dwell upon. Work is also a thing that produces the sweet exhaustion we slump into at the end of a day. It’s the thing that builds the hope that counters those worries and doubts. “I’ve Got a Name for the Newborn Child” is a sweet tune about, yes, new starts. “Now’s the time to pick the food,” Taylor sings, marking the end of a harvest but the start of sustenance, the fruits of hard labor. Therefore, he’s earned a moment to “throw off the yolk and drink a few.”
He can do this because he’s got a child on the way, a family, land, things to work for, to return to. So even when he “got so drunk on brandywine” he doesn’t fall back into worry and doubt, instead “the scales fell away.” Here, and all over the record, there is this kind of biblical language depicting equal parts deception and realization. But what’s remarkable about Haw is that its terrain has many strata, many levels that both pile on each other and confuse together. It’s no mistake that the biblical imagery of the lyrics contrasts with the tarot-inspired artwork of the album’s packaging (beautifully designed by Brendan Greaves). This is an album asking big questions about faith (of all kinds, defined and not) and doubt and humanity and betrayal and how hard pasts can make for easier tomorrows if, of course, we know what to glean from them.
Now, it helps that the songs themselves are effortlessly tuneful — the dusty blues-rock of “Red Rose Nantahala”, the front-porch intimacy of “The Serpent is Kind (Compared to Man)”, the pastoral spaces of “Cheerwine Easter”, and so on. Taylor’s voice is as sweet as it is occasionally rasped, and his quiet acoustic work plays perfectly against watery, flowing guitars and perfectly thumping rhythm sections and understated touches of strings and organs and horns. It’s a sound so perfectly constructed, so surprising in its execution — seriously, hear the horn solo on “Cheerwine Easter” and try not to be floored — that description does it no good.
But for all its effortlessness, what it leads to is just as important. This is a record that tackles thorny issues of faith without being myopic or preachy or dismissive. Everything here is couched in the personal, and it doesn’t seek to solve its doubts so much as define them. Haw is a place where hope can exist with doubt, where one is not mutually exclusive from the other. It’s also a place where faith is not calcified belief, it’s not a place to distance yourself from others but a place to get closer to what you could be and, in that way, connect. “What Shall Be (Shall Be Enough)” is the last song, and the parenthetical is important. It’s there to include if you wish, both a part of the title and not. Because whether or not it’s enough depends on how you deal with these other worries. Hiss Golden Messenger spends Haw dragging them out into the light, if just to get a good look at them. In the end, you can see a body wandering through those worked fields, a serpent held calmly and then discarded, each step leading them toward a porch with people on it. Their porch. Their people.