Although largely falling within traditional singer-songwriter conventions, the music of MC Taylor and Scott Hirsch, aka Hiss Golden Messenger, has a distinctive quality of its own. It has also been undergoing a subtle evolution from the spare, stark Bad Debt to last year’s delicately groovy Haw. Part of this is due to the unusual religious and spiritual imagery and literature that informs Taylor’s lyrics (this album’s title is drawn from a Eudora Welty story), but much of it is also due to the lightly shuffling feeling produced by his ensemble.
This is music that owes as much to the likes of Tony Joe White, Bobby Charles and other ‘country-funk’ staples as it owes to Bob Dylan or to Richard Thompson. Even a cursory glance at Taylor’s Wah Wah Cowboys mixtapes demonstrates the broad range of his listening. The songs here very much occupy their own thematic space and its execution is distinctively Taylor’s own too.
Lateness Of Dancers is Hiss Golden Messenger’s fifth album, but the first for the Merge label, and it arrives with a long deserved burst of extra publicity. On the surface, it feels as if it is smoother and shinier than previous works by the duo, almost as if it has been consciously designed to reach a wider audience. Yet delving beneath the surface reveals that it is a work of substantial depth, perceptiveness and charm. Whilst it retains some of the darkness and questioning doubt that has inspired a good deal of Taylor’s songwriting so far, it is also quietly and modestly hopeful (as emphasised by the closing bluegrass spiritual Drum). The cover art recalls Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece, and Taylor shares a capacity for soul and insight with Morrison at his best.
Taylor and Hirsch’s band of session contributors is usefully expanded here, with familiar contributions from Phil and Brad Cook of Megafaun, and typically panoramic, colourful guitar playing from the great William Tyler. Additional flourishes of vintage keyboards (wurlitzer, hammond organ) further enhance the sense of warmth. Over this calmly grooving ensemble, Taylor’s naturally conversational vocal sometimes needs to work a little harder, and this produces some powerful results, not least on the striking chorus of the opening Lucia, where the additional emphasis is keenly felt (‘She was BEAUTIFUL, it was circumstance/Watch the boat on the water, learn to dance’).
The near-swinging feelings of Lucia and I’m A Raven (Shake Children) are quiet developments of familiar Taylor tropes (the Hi Records rhythm section for Al Green and Ann Peebles always springs to mind) and Southern Grammar harks back to Haw with its relatively unusual 6/4 time signature. Importantly, there are also moments here that considerably expand Taylor’s musical palette. Saturday Song has a rolling triplet feel enhanced by duelling layers of William Tyler’s guitars (his contribution throughout is substantial). A number of pieces, including Day O Day (A Love So Free) and Chapter & Verse (Ione’s Song) almost serve to make the piano their lead instrument.
On the title track, it provides unobtrusive, supportive accompaniment in the lower end. Then there are the backing vocal contributions from Alexandra Sauser-Monnig (of Mountain Man), who provides a soft foil for Taylor’s wordy ruminations. The brilliant Mahogany Dread paradoxically achieves the unpredictable by relying on a much more straightforward rock and roll backbeat. It bears a passing resemblance to Calexico’s lovely Fortune Teller. Again, Tyler adds wonderfully discreet and empathetic guitar lines.
Mahogany Dread is one of at least two songs here which stand among Taylor’s very best so far. They are comfortably the equal of his majestic ‘orphan song’ Brother, Do You Know The Road? (released as a stand along single earlier this year). Mahogany Dread seems to detail new responsibilities (especially parenthood) with honesty and candour, as well as how love can be both troubling and joyful, often at the same time. This is a subject that is crucial to many lives, but often very difficult to write about, or to shoehorn within the demands and confines of a rock song. The slow lilt of Black Dog Wind (“Night seemed so endless and I fought with the sunshine/Mama begged me to wait for the right time”) seems more oblique – but might also be about confronting life’s challenges and finding some solace or maturity through experience. Taylor’s understated delivery means these songs are neither provocative nor confrontational – like many great songs, they have to be inhabited to be understood.
There is a nagging sense that Taylor’s masterpiece is still to come, yet with each release (and he is admirably prolific) he seems to be getting closer to it. Like much of his work so far, Lateness Of Dancers needs some time to embed itself in the consciousness. In spite of the portentous nature of some of his spiritual references, it is also a humble, unassuming work (to the extent of including some introductory guidance speech before the gorgeous Chapter & Verse – “alright, let’s have another go at this”). The conventional instrumentation and song forms might lead some to consider it a conservative work – but its uniquely personal dimensions suggest otherwise. Taylor’s writing combines history with quiet adventure.