Through the decade’s start, Hiss Golden Messenger‘s M.C. Taylor was struggling with the rest of us. Albums Terms of Surrender and Quietly Blowing It showed resilience but came out of the context of both personal and cultural crises. The storms haven’t exactly passed, but Taylor has found a way to appreciate the happiness and fulfillment that making music brings him. The new album Jump for Joy switches up the mood considerably, offering a bouncy set of tracks that build on youthful enthusiasm and maturing gratitude.
Much of Jump for Joy comes from the perspective of the fictional Michael Crow, a thinly veiled version of Taylor that gave him space to probe some of his ideas and feelings about music. The outside perspective also provides a character to speak from a youthful perspective, making time collapse as the artist(s) process a career well lived from different points. Forget the layers of narration, though; the album works at least as well without any of the literary trappings (an odd thing to say about Taylor’s writing).
The opening number, “20 Years and a Nickel”, is more of a foil than a proper introduction. Taylor sings, “I’m waiting, trying to write my masterpiece,” as if maybe he’s found some wisdom, but success has eluded him. Songs are complicated; making music is hard; life isn’t easy. Even as the song opens into a strong midtempo groove, it never releases a sense of satisfaction. As Jump for Joy rolls on, Taylor will get to that point, though, finding that comfort even in the struggles of art, the hard path where the challenge and the sublime coexist.
The pleasure in the pursuit comes out in the folk-rock music throughout. In much of the East Coast, the current temperature is approximately 1000 degrees, and Jump for Joy sounds right at home next to a pool or, better, next to a deep hole in a creek. When Taylor sings about drinking the titular soda in “Nu-Grape”, it creates thirst as much as he quenches it, but the sensation of putting a glass against your forehead on a hot day comes through. The lyric, though, isn’t quite so straightforward, with more limpid water metaphors giving way to lines about “Babylon” and those who “painted out their scripture”. Hiss Golden Messenger invites listeners to sit and relax or to play poetry expositor.
That complexity extends to Taylor’s (and Crow’s) relationship to art. The joy is sincere and utmost, but it’s not shallow or uncomplicated. In “I Saw the New Day in the World”, “missing” is a key experience of the musician’s life. The songwriting “one-trick pony” plays with his I, IV, and V chords and then gets turned into glue. It’s damaging beauty, but beauty all the same. In the New Orleans-flavored “Jump for Joy”, Taylor knows “the seas are rising”, but instead of lamenting or complaining, he finds a way forward. The updated Fleetwood Mac of “Shinbone” mixes pure happiness with self-inflicted stress before asking a difficult question: “If you lose it all / Can you love what’s left?”
The answer, necessarily, can’t be answered logically, but can be felt in tracks like “My Old Friends” with its persistent belief and closer “Sunset on the Faders”. Taylor learns that, as a musician, he “speak[s] in a dead language”, but that’s exactly the language he would choose. The band rambles on, keeping a tighter groove, more approaching rock, and Hiss Golden Messenger make it clear that they’re just where they need to be, whether it can be articulated in regular language or not.