Hiss Golden Messenger: Terms of Surrender


[Sep. 20; Merge]

Hiss Golden Messenger albums often start with an invocation of their overarching themes.

The intense and yearning acoustic collection Bad Debt opens with “Balthazar’s Song,” an initiation into Durham singer-songwriter M.C. Taylor’s spiritual reckoning. Haw begins with “Red Rose Nantahala,” a plea for the freedom to believe what you want without judgment. Hallelujah Anyhow commences with “Jenny of the Roses,” where the title character muses on the upside of uncertainty (“I’ve never been afraid of the darkness / It’s just a different kind of light,”), and the ensuing tunes are some of Taylor’s most approachable, embracing the metaphorical dark and finding joy in the self-directed isolation of the road.

Terms of Surrender—Taylor’s most invigorating album since he signed with Merge Records in 2014—feels like the inverse. While Hallelujah is all soft swells and rootsy simplicity, Terms is alive with bright flashes of texture and melody that flirt with excess but never cross the line. It’s a fitting backdrop for songs that cast a fearful eye toward certainty, optimism, and the danger of getting carried away when everything feels right—and you’re sure you are, too.

This thematic undercurrent flows from the excellent opener “I Need a Teacher,” where Taylor struggles to overcome the tricky divide between fathers and sons: “Rock me, daddy, I’m still your kid / The ways to you are oh-so-very different / Beauty in the broken American moment.” Sharp, forceful pangs of electric guitar occupy the bridge, erupting like the convictions that parent and child seek to overcome in a divided political climate.

But conviction isn’t always met with trepidation on Terms. Taylor addresses his daughter with unending affection on the sparkly stomper “Happy Birthday, Baby” (“It was lightning quick / You lit up the house like a matchstick”), and “My Wing” feels both celebratory and cautionary, as Taylor overcomes fears to take metaphorical flight, even as sunbursts of guitar and harmonica evoke Icarus’s scorched feathers.

At the end, amid the bestial blues skronk of “Whip,” Taylor sings with fiery determination about how he can’t stop chasing a “spirit on the water.” Then, on a title track backed by steady brushes of piano and guitar and intermittent plumes of drone, he sings, “And I saw the fires / 10,000 burning / All this water behind me, my love / No boat for the turning.”

Don’t get trapped by your convictions, he suggests, closing an album that heeds doubt instead of struggling against it. After convincing himself to love the dark, Taylor is reminding us to be wary of the light.


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