HISS GOLDEN MESSENGER
O Come All Ye Faithful (Merge)
This page, this house – yeah ok, this writer – is generally speaking a Christmas tunes-free zone. Most days, if asked if I want hymns? Bah! Carols? Getouttahere! Secular standards? Get thee behind me satanic Bublé.
But every so often something good – yes, it’s possible – gets under the barriers, like Tracey Thorn’s excellent Tinsel And Lights, to join rarities such as the pop-tastic, girl group-heavy (if morally questionable by association) A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector, or of course the classic, Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas, from the great Miss Fitzgerald.
Like Thorn’s album, Hiss Golden Messenger’s main man, MC Taylor, enters the ring with an album that speaks to its time, not just its season, and in doing so can both transcend a moment of cheap emotions, and last by tapping something universal and real.
This is an album that doesn’t pretend the past two years have slipped away without leaving a trace or that everything magically turns to gold on December 24; that offers a home for the lonely, while at the same time recognising that beauty and joy can emerge anywhere, though it may come in hushed tones and ambiguous returns.
In other words, typical Hiss Golden Messenger territory and a companion to, you might even say a bow tied on, his earlier 2021 album, the tender and forgivingly understanding, Quietly Blowing It.
O Come All Ye Faithful is a mix of originals, a couple of standards and some things that might never have been thought of as Christmas tunes, but suit them like a string of muted lights across the lintel.
For example, Spiritualized’s Shine A Light (“And when I’m lonesome/Lord shine a light on me”), is a meditative nearly-jazz piece, with a gently meandering saxophone playing against a quietly searching guitar: piano and brass beneath them, a sense of yearning that hasn’t abandoned hope, through them.
John Fogerty’s As Long As I Can See The Light is presented more as if it was a traditional folk tune uncovered by The Band than by Creedence Clearwater Revival: slow southern soul on an organ and guitar bed; electric piano the decoration; Taylor’s voice with the openness of Richard Manuel as he sings of a need to go that doesn’t preclude a return. “Though I’m gone, gone/You don’t have to worry, no/Long as I can see the light.”
Meanwhile, the traditional title track takes much the same night-time soul approach as the Fogerty song, this time tipping slightly more into Ray Charles and the Raelettes territory as Taylor makes “o come all ye faithful” feel more like a plea to fill the space rather than a request to join a celebration. And Silent Night is reimagined as a cold night on the prairie song, with a cowboy’s hum and a pedal steel’s keening.
Woody Guthrie’s humorous Hanukkah Dance is a late-arriving, fiddle-enhanced, bit of levity, but Taylor’s own songs are the more consistent setters of tone, from the opening country soul ballad, Hung Fire, that doesn’t pretend (“Things were bad, if we’re being honest”) but also doesn’t succumb (“It’s Christmas baby, thank God we made/It’s Christmas baby, I’m glad we made it”).
The Memphis shuffle of Grace lifts spirits as much with its low-key groove in the wacka-wacka-wacka guitar as the elevated chorus, while never letting go of its thin seam of hurt, and By The Lights Of Saint Stephen takes in the damage done (“Is it a shadow, you’re lost alone and only hide from your demons”) and sees “a little light was all we needed”.
So what feels in its first listens like a sobering, though not necessarily sober, correction to the bonhomie of traditional yuletide records, ends up being a reminder that emotional complexity takes more than tatt and bunkum, but that bit of extra work can be a lot more satisfying too.