Step Back from the Darkness

The Music of Hiss Golden Messenger
Photo Credit: Sam Rockman

From the stage comes a voice, crying out from the wilderness over the thrum of an acoustic guitar. It’s rough-hewn and weathered, world-weary but hopeful, mournful but leavened with joy.

“It’s a strange, sweet kind of life
To be lost out in the darkness of the border
If you carry the good news, show me
I’ve been looking for a song down among us”

This is the voice of M.C. Taylor, the singer and songwriter behind the band Hiss Golden Messenger, performing last year in Portland, Ore. His latest record, Hallelujah Anyhow, is a meditation on finding beauty in ugly times. If there’s a better mantra for life in 2018, I’ve yet to hear it.

Music has a longstanding role in processing questions of cultural identity in America. Congregations have their hymns and the protest generation had its anthems, songs that tell us who we are and who we want to be. Today, that collective language often eludes us. The American songbook has faded from consciousness, and with it the power to express our ideals in a simple stanza: “We Shall Overcome” or “This Land is Your Land” or “America the Beautiful.” We’re looking for our voice and the words that make us whole.

Taylor is descended from the American folk revival, a movement rooted in musical activism, but he’s not a protest singer at heart. He is more like an itinerant preacher, John the Baptist in a hair shirt. Though his religious views aren’t clearly stated, his songs are full of spiritual imagery: serpents and saints, prophets and martyrs, cries to a God who may or may not be there.

Taylor’s 2010 album Bad Debt is sparse and God-haunted, giving a more honest account of faith and doubt than any I heard in Sunday school. A song called “Jesus Shot Me in the Head” tells the story of a man who experiences a religious conversion in the midst of a hotel-room bender, then struggles to navigate the straight and narrow. “He loves us all, but the ones who fall / hold a special place in his ranks,” Taylor sings. “Least I hope this is how it goes. / Hey everybody, did you hear the news? Jesus shot me in the head.”

“It never seems like American Christians are ever following the teachings of Jesus as I understand them to be—and they’re not that difficult to understand,” Taylor explained in an interview with the Washington Post. “So I’m trying to find this other way to faith. But I’m looking for a back door. All the common entrances seem incorrect.”

At the time I discovered Hiss Golden Messenger, I was looking for back doors, too, tired of the politics and culture wars that cloud the American religious experience. I found comfort in the simple words of a song called “Drum,” Bad Debt’s closing track and a thesis statement of sorts for Hiss Golden Messenger. The song unfurls like a psalm, Taylor playing the part of a prodigal son who has seen the light.

“I’ll beat my drum
Everybody to come runnin’
I’ll beat my drum all the day
I’ll rise, I’ll rise
I’ll rise in the morning
And take the good news
Carry it away
Take the good news
Spirit it away”

That simple resolution, to awake and proclaim good news, seems more difficult by the day. Each morning brings horrors anew, further straining the cords that bind us together. Cynicism and dark humor inoculate against the constant dread but, over time, lead to a kind of spiritual deadness in which despair feels truer than hope.

Taylor’s music presents an alternate path, one of sincerity, vulnerability, deep pain and abiding joy. In “When the Wall Comes Down,” we’re encouraged to come away from nihilism and towards a kind of broken-down grace. “Step back, Jack, from the darkness,” Taylor sings. It’s a simple song, like a hymn, and easy to sing along to. The words are both timeless and specific to this moment: America, 2018, when all of us are searching for a voice.

“When you guys leave here tonight, do something good for somebody,” Taylor says in closing benediction. “And when you’re with someone you love, remember to tell them that you love them. It’s simple, but it does a whole lot of good that we need.” He speaks as one who has been called, a messenger with a mighty word. Taylor has found something that endures, known to the psalmists, hymn writers and folk singers of ages past. This is the good news: a simple song, simple words and a simple melody, sung together by friends and strangers, forever and amen.

Austin Meek is a writer and musician who lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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