Haw, the new LP from Durham’s Hiss Golden Messenger, is not a jubilant record. Sure, the songs move with a loose country amble, but they’re shaded with searing guitar solos, eerie strings and the knotty croon of leader M.C. Taylor, a distinctive instrument that slinks through this album like a snake through the garden, moving discretely only to strike with unexpected power. His words further the spiritual journey that has dominated previous albums. He claims that “the serpent is kind compared to man” and refers to his God — more or less the Christian one — as a conqueror, for whom he will be the sufferer. These thoughts are hardly cheery, and while there are brighter moments on Haw, the overall vibe is one of anxious uncertainty.
And yet, the album opens with a moment of spontaneous levity: a barely audible laugh that precedes the lithe and rippling groove of “Red Rose Nantahala.”
Hiss Golden Messenger is Taylor’s tool for dissecting internal quandaries, intensely personal dilemmas of faith and family that might never be resolved. But he understands how lucky he is to be able to do it and to have an immensely talented band join him — even if they don’t frequently back him live. More importantly, he’s grateful that people are listening.
“My relationship with this stuff, with Hiss Golden Messenger, has sort of been an odyssey, a personal and spiritual odyssey that’s ongoing,” Taylor says. “It’s all questions and no answers. In that way, it’s totally personal, and people like that. I can understand why. It’s not sensational, but it’s personal. And I feel like people, they appreciate that.”
As Taylor says this, he reclines in a couch stuck in one corner of his spacious basement. The room is cluttered with boxes and knick knacks. It’s March, and he and his family — his wife Abby and their 4-year-old son, Elijah — have just moved into a new home, the first that they have owned. At the time, Abby was pregnant with their second child; Ione Clare Taylor was born healthy and happy in July.
With a cherished home life and mouths to feed, Taylor, 37, isn’t interested in “making it” with Hiss Golden Messenger. He tried that once with The Court & Spark, a folk-rock outfit that worked the same ethereal roots. That band toured hard, but never exceeded subsistence-level success. These days, he doesn’t play very often, and when he does, it’s usually just him and an acoustic guitar, wowing with immediacy and passion that are just as potent as the band’s robust arrangements.
“I couldn’t survive on music alone,” Taylor says. “I wouldn’t want to. I would have to do a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t be too happy about doing. But [the music's] always been the same. The thing that’s changed is that I think I’ve become able to articulate these shades of emotion that I’ve been working at for a long time. The songs have gotten better. They’ve gotten more honest. They’ve gotten more personal in a way, which is the irony of it because there’s more people listening to this stuff than there ever has been before.”
Haw has indeed drawn a lot of attention, garnering praise from the likes of The New York Times, Oxford American and Pitchfork.com, among others. It’s a darker, more complex offering than 2011’s similarly trapped Poor Moon. That album eloquently established spiritual quandaries, but spent little time stewing on their implications. Haw takes these notions further, begging questions but finding few conclusive answers. Appropriately, the instrumentation is both more foreboding and more intense, raising the stakes right along with Taylor’s words.
“Red Rose Nantahala” is a searing cry for religious and ideological freedom. Taylor yearns for the world to just “let me love the one I want,” though he is forever beaten down by “creatures with their forked tongues.” Halfway through, the striding country shuffle is split wide by a scorching solo from Nashville guitarist William Tyler, a lightning bolt of aggressive energy that mirrors Taylor’s fervent plea.
On the more mild-mannered “Devotion,” cicada chirps and uneasy strings lend gentle support to pensive guitars. Taylor takes stock of terrestrial distractions — “The taxman comes, he takes all my wages” — but ultimately reaffirms his faith, even if he doesn’t exactly know what he believes.
“I continue to be interested in exploring those places of darkness,” Taylor explains. “That’s where I work most confidently. It’s not happy or sad. It’s like what real f••king life is like. It’s a mixture of both all the time.”
who: Hiss Golden Messenger, with State Hospital Wilderness
where: The Apothecary
when: Saturday, Aug. 10 (9 p.m. doors. $8/$10. ashevilleapothecary.info)