At least one of the big, existential quandaries with which M.C. Taylor wrestles as Hiss Golden Messenger is getting easier.
The first five proper albums that the Durham-based songwriter released after signing with hometown indie heavyweight Merge Records in 2014 all spend time exploring the difficulties the family man faced becoming a full-on touring musician when his domestic existence was firmly established. And up until Jump for Joy, released last month, Taylor’s albums often found him coping with guilt and separation anxiety.
“Do you hate me, honey / As much as I hate myself?” he begged on 2016’s “Heart Like a Levee,” a song that found him preparing to leave his wife and two kids behind as he headed out on the road once more.
Jump for Joy—the most boisterous, loose-limbed Hiss record since the project’s 2009 debut Country Hai East Cotton—finds Taylor feeling profoundly settled: Into his work-family balance as a professional musician. Into balancing thoughtful songwriting with his band’s gripping folk-rock. Into why he continues to write songs that grapple with big questions about spirituality and the purpose of living when those questions can never truly be answered.
Part of the album’s vibe has to do with home circumstances. Now that his children are older, Taylor says, he can better explain to them why he has to go away for stretches, though it’s still challenging to be away.
When INDY Week caught up with Taylor in late July, he was vacationing with his family in Maine, banking some quality time before a fall full of touring. Elijah—the son who was a baby when Taylor whisper-sang parts of 2010’s Bad Debt into a recorder so as not to wake him—is 14. His daughter, Ione, to whom he directed the 2019 present and apology “Happy Birthday, Baby” (“I’m trying to repay you / For all these miles that I roam”), is 10.
“It’s easier, but it’s never easy,” Taylor reflects. “I find it very hard to leave. And it’s hard to come back when I’ve been away for a while. They’ve come up with a system that doesn’t include me.”
The pull of his family is still strong, but it doesn’t weigh Taylor down on Jump for Joy. The album’s unburdened vibe is amplified by its energetic, often euphoric, music.
“We spent a lot of time together and had come up with what felt like was a pretty magical thing,” Taylor says of why he wanted to flex his touring band—guitarist Chris Boerner, bassist Alex Bingham, keyboardist Sam Fribush, and drummer Nick Falk—and their ability to smolder and boogie, delicately emote, and all-out rock.
The way they push him to new heights is exemplified by the title track, which strives not to be bummed out by potential apocalypses, succeeding in large measure thanks to the band’s joyfully jittering blues-rock.
“Jump for joy / See where it gets you,” Taylor beams determinedly atop their rollick. “Take it to the highway / Like Dickey Betts / Nothing’s a given in the Book of the Dead or the bed of the living.”
The songs on Jump for Joy and the renewed energy with which they’re performed were shaped by Taylor actively considering whether it made sense to continue with Hiss in the time leading up to his writing and recording the album.
“I think I needed to have this protracted discussion with myself about whether it was something that I was still interested in doing,” he says. “And if so, what was it about this thing that I started doing and when I was a kid, where does the spark reside? There are a lot of ways that that spark can be dimmed when you sort of function slightly on the margins of the music biz. You know, I’m by no means a superstar. It was a conversation that I needed to have with myself about whether it was something that I could, in good faith, continue doing.”
“[But] the more I thought about it, the more excited I got about the prospect of songwriting,” he continues, “because examining old memories about what music meant to me when I climbed into a tour van to play music for people that I’d never met before, it kind of reminded me that that sort of visceral experience is still exciting to me.”
This reevaluation shows through in songs that actively grapple with why Taylor continues to write songs and why he continues to chase persistent themes.
“There’s no such thing as a simple song / … Words can mean different things / From day to day they change their meaning,” he offers, singing on album opener “20 Years and a Nickel,” which doubles as an explanation of why he’s still “trying to write my masterpiece” after 25 years—and why it’s still a pursuit that compels him.
On “The Wondering,” he yearns to “write just one verse / That doesn’t feel like persuasion / That doesn’t feel rehearsed / That doesn’t need explaining.” The drive to further hone his craft continues to motivate him.
That song also concerns itself with why Taylor continues to mine the tension between his desire for spiritual fulfillment and the problematic nature of religious institutions.
“Ever since I was just a little thing / I’ve had that certain kind of hunger / Nothing satisfied me / Save that wide-open wonder,” he sings, portraying his need to interrogate the unknowable and his zest for heading out to parts unknown as sympathetic impulses.
“The Wondering” is in many ways the album’s skeleton key, as it also gives the firmest frame in which to consider Michael Crow, a contrived character who is a narrator for parts of Jump for Joy.
“Back in the day I was Michael Crow,” Taylor sings. “I’d go creeping through the houses / Oh, the things I’d see through those country windows / Were enough to make you cry out.”
Taylor explains that the character helped him get after the way he felt when he was in his teens, discovering the world and discovering music, without getting bogged down in having to portray it exactly as it happened.
“You take away a lot of the tangled-up history that comes with being a musician and climbing into tour vans for 30 years,” Taylor says. “A lot of tedium is not there. Just because I don’t find tedious parts of this life being the parts that really I find very interesting.”
Taylor mostly leaves it to the listener to determine when Crow is narrating songs, but he explains a little about how it works on album centerpiece “Jesus Is Bored.”
The second verse finds the narrator looking up at a “tangerine moon over Texas, ripe enough to feel it dripping” while working in “the Starvation Army,” and it pulls from Taylor’s memories of being 18, on tour with his hardcore band and “feeling excited by the prospect of travel and art and not knowing what exactly the next day will bring.” Other parts of the song, the first verse of which is sung from the perspective of a 16-year-old begging for “something to lift me up out of this darkness / Something to light my way,” come from Crow.
For Taylor, leaving doubt as to when the character is deployed amplifies the intrigue.
“The blurriness is something that I always played with,” he says. “The person singing the songs on Hiss Golden Messenger records is me and isn’t me. I am playing a part, and I’m able to play it well, because I know the details of the character very well. And I think I wanted to amplify that blurriness on this by actually giving this character a name that is not my own name but is kind of close to my own name.”
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