“There’s one way in and there’s one way out / And we’re gonna have a good time,” Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor decided on “Biloxi” from last year’s Heart Like a Levee. The reality of hardship in life and death when it’s over is something Taylor has had a firm grasp of over his previous releases. It’s something he’s come to grips with and decided to “have a good time” in the face of it. And that attitude has carried him into 2017’s Hallelujah Anyhow. In his bio, Taylor wrote “Love is the only way out. I’ve never been afraid of the darkness; it’s just a different kind of light. And if some days that belief comes harder than others, hallelujah anyhow.” Sometimes that’s easier said than done — to praise, to find reasons to be thankful in the face of dark times. But that’s why Taylor writes his music. It’s equal parts self-therapy in those times and encouragement to anyone that finds themselves in that dark place.
On Hallelujah Anyhow, Taylor shares the journey with many of his familiar friends like Megafaun’s Phil and Brad Cook, and even adds harmonies from the likes of Tift Merritt and John Paul White. The excellent talent on the album and production by Taylor and Brad Cook combine to make a very focused sound for Hiss Golden Messenger’s third Merge release. Still holding to the deep southern roots of Americana with occasional tinges of blues and gospel, Hallelujah takes a simpler approach than last year’s Heart Like a Levee. Where the former release had occasional departures into the eerie swampiness of “Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer” and “As the Crow Flies”, this album stays more in line with the Band and mid-‘70s Bob Dylan. The simpler approach allows for Taylor to deliver his hopeful music with intense clarity, albeit a little safely.
What tends to give Taylor’s voice more credibility than others who have tried to deliver albums of hope is that he doesn’t shy away from the darkness. He leads out “Gulfport You’ve Been on My Mind” with the mantra, “I’ve seen darker things than night / Yes, I’ve seen darker things than night / So give me the light.” On “Harder Rain”, he sympathetically speaks to self-harm or self-punishment, singing: “So you say you want it harder / Like more than you can take / And I know you want to suffer / I’ve been to that place.” He continues to share his own experience, “More pain won’t kill the pain / Hear me.”
Musically and lyrically, Hiss Golden Messenger allows room to express emotion. It meets listeners in a personal way, giving room to cry along with Phil Cook’s wailing harmonica solo on “Gulfport” and giving reason to dance and sway through life to the bouncing syncopation of “John the Gun”. Throughout, the balanced mood between bruised by hardship and beaming with life is beautifully struck, like when Taylor reassures, “Though I’m torn and tattered / I’ll abide / Baby, I swear I’ll abide.”
The musical methodology here is mostly a safe play, giving very little in the way of surprise or innovation in form or timbre. But the simplicity of delivery brings with it a gospel-like message of redemption and hope as the album concludes, “Step back, Jack, from the darkness / But while I’m here / I’m gonna sing just like a songbird.” As long as life carries on and the darkness exists, the world needs messengers of hope. Hiss Golden Messenger deliver that here on Hallelujah Anyhow, making it relevant regardless of time and place.