As far as parental advice goes, MC Taylor’s “The world feels broken, I ain’t joking babe” is pretty stark. Yet his proclamations on new single Hardlytown, and so many others on Hiss Golden Messenger’s ninth studio album, are imbued with a defiant hope. Quietly Blowing It feels like an oasis of sanguine calm during a period when the world has seemed frequently at risk of spinning off its axis.
Perhaps the pacific mood is reflective of the environment Taylor’s new album was conceived in. With COVID emergent following a world tour that left him emotionally spent and pining for his family, Taylor took respite in an eight by 10-foot space beneath his North Carolina home that houses a vast discerning record collection and a mini studio. There, he crafted some two dozen song sketches between March and June 2020, and as lockdown began to ease the desire to collaborate called.
Taylor, a lifetime scholar of American music, has spent the past 13 years refining his brew of alt-country, soul, spiritual jazz, gospel and blues styles, surrounding himself with a loose collective of seasoned musicians who play with rarefied feel and intuition. This time round, a group including Bonny Light Horseman bandmates Josh Kaufman and Anaïs Mitchell, Nashville guitarist Buddy Miller, songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov, Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith of folk-rock band Dawes and Hiss mainstay Scott Hirsch gathered at Overdub Lane in Durham, NC for sessions that were both organic and a cathartic outpouring after months of isolation.
From the unhurried C/F/G chord progression that introduces Way Back In The Way Back, we’re ushered into a world of tranquility, Taylor reassuring “don’t be afraid, we’ll be fine in the morning”. A gathering sax swell heralds a stirring ascent around the refrain “Up with the mountains, down with the system” before choice licks wrung from simmering valve amps join the party. It all ends in a cloud of oscillating delay.
The album’s clement tone is familiar from 2016 career-high Heart Like A Levee and 2019’s Grammy-nominated Terms Of Surrender. The latter felt like a record forged from pain, and there’s plenty here too, as Taylor writes about work and class, grief, self-doubt, an America at war with itself and a looming climate emergency, yet always he seeks out the light. The Great Mystifier is a soulful country shuffle nodding to the Allman Brothers, fluid lead guitar lines shrouded in phase winding joyously around a howling harmonica solo, Taylor espousing sagely “practise resurrection, take the blame, learn the lesson/ say you’re sorry, love ain’t a weapon”.
The title track is a majestic high point, faintly reminiscent of the equally radiant Cracked Windshield from Heart Like A Levee, as Taylor solemnly admires a “big pink sun over Hollywood”. Warm blues phrases unwind with indolent grace from Miller’s guitar, abetted by Brevan Hampden’s decorative percussion and brushes kissing softly against snare skin. It all fades away to the lonely sound of cicadas buzzing in the sultry night air.
Hope continues to shine forth from these gentle, spiritual compositions. “It’s cradle to the grave, so be good to each other,” Taylor encourages his flock in the opening bars of Hardlytown, before wrestling with the notion that what you get out of life might not match what you put in. Still there’s light on the horizon as he urges “People get ready, there’s a big ship coming”, among several nods on Quietly Blowing It to Curtis Mayfield. Also namechecked is Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Going On, and there are parallels to a great introspective record made at a time of similarly acute American turmoil.
Taylor’s yearning hushed tones on the gospel If It Comes In The Morning, a co-write with Mitchell, are deeply soothing over sleepy tremolo waves, as he muses: “All hope is contagious”. An inviting snare roll calls the band into action, dreamy pedal steel and lingering sax notes tangling together as minimal guitar arpeggios flicker left and right. It’s a thing of deep, restorative beauty. Painting Houses, too, is wonderous, led by a piano and a pair of interweaving acoustics. A mandolin and sax lock into the most graceful of solo duels, slide motifs swooping through the air, as Taylor counts his blessings and sighs “we’re broke but we’re breathing”.
The album’s final track, Sanctuary, is a salute to John Prine, yet it’s also a personal meditation, Taylor concluding: “Feeling bad, feeling blue, can’t get out of my own mind; but I know how to sing about it”. That’s a neat synopsis of the latest in a long line of stately, sad, hopeful Hiss Golden Messenger records. Quietly Blowing It is MC Taylor and his masterly musical sidekicks looking for certainty in the maddening swirl, surveying the wreckage of the wild fires, political fury, racial injustice and pandemic horror – and singing about it.
“This is me mourning, and celebrating, and dancing, and crying, and praying, and hoping,” explains Taylor in Mourning In America, the album’s accompanying essay. “And it’s all the same song.”
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