When M.C. Taylor, the artist behind Hiss Golden Messenger, began writing the songs for Quietly Blowing It, he was, in his own words, “looking for peace”. Many of us can relate to his quest, especially considering it took place primarily between March and June 2020, a stretch whose events require no reminders. Processing the state of the world at that time posed at least two pitfalls (aside from demonstrating how to lose friends and alienate people). Taylor could trap himself with highly specific protest songs, venting frustration with a limited topicality. Alternately, he could avoid the climate around him and spray out a bunch of sunshine. Wisely, he navigated his own Strait of Messina for an album that offers its comforts without dismissing our need for them.
Taylor’s struck this balance before; 2019’s Terms of Surrender, a much darker album, offered glimpses of hope in a broken world. That world came from personal hurt, while this one comes from external crises. Taylor, first as a songwriter and then with an enlarged and all-star version of Hiss Golden Messenger, finds ways to settle into this world. Quietly Blowing It might or might not function as “protest” or “political”, but its distance from those phrases helps it becomes more of a balm. As Taylor looks for sanctuary (“That’s all I can offer you,” he sings on the track named “Sanctuary”), he isn’t fixing or fighting the world so much as he’s creating asylum.
This attitude doesn’t hide in the album. “Hope hope is contagious,” Taylor sings on “If It Comes in the Morning”, and that line serves as a guiding principle. “We’ll be fine in the morning,” he tells us on opener “Way Back in the Way Back” with a voice that suggests his point might not be accurate, but it’s worth believing in anyway. He balances these feelings with doses of reality and cuts like “Mighty Dollar”, which is about precisely what you think it’s about. There’s plenty lose in this album, and – as the title acknowledges, plenty of ways we’re quietly blowing it, but Taylor persists.
His assemblage of musicians creates the environment for his endeavor to work. Artists like Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith (Dawes), Josh Kaufmann (Bonny Light Horseman), Matt Douglas (underappreciated Mountain Goat), Buddy Miller (everything), and other noteworthy artists make appearances, all in the service of asylum. Gregory Alan Isakov and Anaïs Mitchell contribute co-writing. Each cut builds on a calming sort of folk-rock as if Bob Dylan cared about the mental health of others. The group provides enough variety to sustain the album, whether by varying tempos, turning toward ’70s Gold, or simply letting a saxophone solo help us settle for the evening.
Taylor may have reached Maximum Messenger at this point. He’s been releasing about an album a year for over a decade and the ensconcing shows at times. In this case, his ease in his style adds to his goal of creating a peaceful sanctuary. Quietly Blowing It isn’t the album where Taylor introducing experimental electronics or dissects urban life. It’s the record where he brings together experienced Appalachian artfulness to provide just the right space to fulfill his vision.