HISS GOLDEN MESSENGER
Quietly Blowing It (Merge)
This album ends asking us, “do you want sanctuary?” And it’s not an idle question.
None of us got out of 2020 unscarred, and some of us haven’t been able to find a steady path even as things returned to some simulacrum of normal. Anger has bubbled inside, despair hovered at the edges of thoughts, things just never felt … right. Not for you or me or anyone writing a song.
It’s not surprising then that so many albums this year, and towards the end of last year, have felt like hands reaching out for another, seeking solace and support just as much as they offered it. If we think only local there’s a swathe of them, from The Avalanches’ We Will Always Love You and Julia Stone’s Sixty Summers to Liz Stringer’s First Time Really Feeling and Middle Kids’ Today We’re The Greatest.
I mean, really, take a look at some of those album titles.
After only a few tracks, maybe not even that long, the obvious view to take with this album is that M.C. Taylor’s Hiss Golden Messenger have arrived as the salve, the balm, the audio equivalent of the arm thrown around your shoulder just when you needed it. And that view would not be wrong.
Bringing a blend of at-ease country and late-night soul – not slow, more cruisey; not heartbroken, more dismayed - Quietly Blowing It goes semi-gently into the not so good night. It does that though with the added colour of the kind of pop music that has shaken free the high heels and loosened its tie to perch on the stool at the front of the small club’s stage and tell you something personal.
Think Willie Nelson and Gladys Knight backed by Lambchop, or Carly Simon and Jason Isbell up front of Calexico. Or maybe Wilco at their calmest.
So yeah, it’s soothing in its sound, generally calm and calming in its tempo, and intimate in its tone, whether via pedal steel and organ or quietly spoken drums and Taylor’s deceptively conversational (but actually cultured) tenor.
However, there’s a bit more going on than that in Quietly Blowing It. This isn’t just about comfort, it’s also about self-awareness and self-criticism, not for self laceration but self-care. It’s about moving on, or at least preparing to.
The languorous title track, which has the feel of an island resort band trying on some Randy Newman, recognises mistakes made. He doesn’t let himself off easy, But it is balanced by some forgiveness. In The Great Mystifier, which starts out like Johnny Cash and ends up like down-home boys (on harmonica, twanging slide guitar and upright piano) cheerily choogling after dinner, Taylor points out that bending and not letting pride stand in the way can change so much.
Even in Painting Houses, a torch song wrapped inside a Kris Kristofferson mourning-after track which feels like walking a very narrow space between moments of hurt past and future, hope is still a consideration.
By the time we reach the end of this album with Sanctuary, a not quite-country rock/not quite country soul song that John Prine (who is name-checked within it) would have been proud to own, that arm around our shoulders has given more than comfort, it’s given strength, and maybe even received some too.
Not with answers but a reminder for us that the questions are not ours alone, and a reminder for Taylor that “feeling bad, feeling blue/Can’t get out of my own mind/But I know how to sing about it”, and that’s not a bad thing at all either.
TELL ME MORE!
If you want to know more about the mind and heart behind these songs, and the circumstances in which they were written and recorded, try my two part interview with MC Taylor.
A version of this review ran previously in The Sydney Morning Herald