Hiss Golden MessengerHaw
“Haw!” how a muleskinner moves a mule to the left. “Haw,” half a laugh.
Haw, herein, is an album of eleven songs about family, faith, and an ill-prophesied future, an artifact almost as archaic, lovely and seldom heard today as directional commands for beasts of burden. M.C. Taylor, who wrote these songs, once lived hard by the Haw with his wife Abigail and their son Elijah—Well I come from the bottom of the river Haw, he sings—but he doesn’t live there anymore. Having followed the slipstream to the relative bustle of nearby Durham, North Carolina, he has composed a new clutch of tunes that conjure the half-remembered dreams of peace promised by our pasts.
When pitted against rampant prognostications of a gathering American darkness in years to come, those easy domestic dreams falter and flicker and perhaps collapse. But if nostalgia is a potion that casts a crooked smoke, these smoky Southern blues suggest that fatalism frames the future. What will be will be enough. Don’t study on the ways of tomorrow. If we allow our yesterdays—our youth—to fade too far into the glow of malleable memory and doddering fondness, our tomorrows will surely assume a dire and bleak fixity. And so we sing out: Goodbye blackened abattoir/Hello, yellow dawn. It takes a worried man to sing such a worried song: Sara Carter knew that, and many other fellow travelers too.
Haw proposes a manifestly mature sense of anxiety and acute but unspectacular workaday pain, mapping a spiritual inscape pricklier and more unknowable than the places explored on Poor Moon (2011), the previous Hiss Golden Messenger record of all new material. Sonically, the arrangements – by turns lush with strings and saxophones and as kitchen-table direct as Bad Debt (2010) – belie the compositions’ Biblical claws with a longing for pastoral comfort, the ease of fellowship, and more minutes than they can contain. I do not go by the Book of Days. These prayers from Babylon posit that we are, all of us, ruled by the distant thunder of memory and ingrown or inherited gospel. The best we can do is to await the next storm with joy and devotion. Some call that faith. I’m trying to learn to love my conqueror.
Taylor’s writing and singing here achieve a tenebrous clarity, invoking—and occasionally challenging—a intermingling cast of prophetic characters both sacred and profane: Daniel, Elijah, the Apostles, and the Son of Man, sure, but also the Peacock Fiddle Band, Mississippi John Hurt, and by implication, Lew Welch, Waylon Jennings, Michael Hurley, and our friend Jefferson Currie II. Say whatever prayer you want: to Jehovah or Yahowah, or Red Rose Nantahala.More than ever before, the supporting players of Hiss Golden Messenger feature as tellers of the tale. Each episode earns a meticulously turned ensemble statement.
In the band’s current incarnation, rhythm section stalwarts Terry Lonergan (drums) and Taylor’s longtime musical brother Scott Hirsch (bass, guitar, and production) are joined by Durham multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook of Megafaun, Black Twig Pickers banjoist Nathan Bowles of Blacksburg, and on Telecaster, Nashville’s own William Tyler. Bobby Crow (saxophone), Matt Cunitz (keys), Gordon Hartin (steel guitar), Joseph DeCosimo (fiddle), Sonia Turner (vocals), and Mark Paulson of the Bowerbirds (strings) also crew, navigating Haw’s shoals of trouble and delight. Lyrically and musically multifarious and freshly urgent, Haw represents Hiss Golden Messenger’s most ambitious and challenging work yet.
In the end, the record, like the full tilt river, takes us through the gates and past all the creatures with their forkèd tongues (though the serpent is kind, compared to man.) But we needn’t follow it all the way to Cape Fear. Instead, cleave you to the rock; keep the sloughs astern. Row. Here comes Easter Sunday. There’ll be Cheerwine and chicken bog, red drum and Red Horse Bread. Got so drunk on brandywine/The scales fell away. And that’s worth at least half a laugh.
So: haw! Selah!