M.C. Taylor's voice creeps up about 21 seconds into "Brother, Do You Know the Road?" The standalone digital single serves as a prelude to his forthcoming Merge Records debut.
As the song's ambling country shuffle settles into focus, Taylor announces himself not with a note delivered in his knotty, warbling croon, but in a quiet, tossed-off directive to his studio band.
"Keep going," he says. The instruction is an incantation, an imperative to navigate the song's lingering darkness — profoundly miserable but potentially redemptive — that its weary call-and-response structure and laboring, prison-work-song tempo evokes.
Since relocating from the Bay Area to North Carolina's Research Triangle in 2007, Taylor has kept going, mining his own spiritual and existential crises for increasingly arresting records. The emotional core of Taylor's gripping songs is small and personal. "Bad Debt" is officially Hiss Golden Messenger's third record but it's the first real declaration of intent; Taylor recorded much of it in delicate whispers at his kitchen table so as to not wake his then-newborn son, asleep just down the hall. Paradise of Bachelors reissued the record earlier this year.
He refined that approach on 2013's superlative "Haw," a record overrun with careful takes on what it means to be righteous and wrong. Not long after its release, Taylor's wife had their second child, a daughter. "My whole musical thing that I'm doing now," Taylor said at a recent solo performance in Winston-Salem, N.C. "It wouldn't exist without them."
"I think having kids puts anyone, anyone who's kind of emotionally sensitive, in a very vulnerable place," Taylor explains when reached the next day at his home in Durham and asked to expound upon the dedication. "I've always been searching for a way to wrestle with my emotions [and] sort of grapple with my existential or spiritual landscape in a way that felt very impulsive and immediate, and sort of raw. And really, I've been searching for a way to confront my fear about doing that. And having kids I think sort of pushed me closer to that, because … having kids puts you in a very emotional place."
Due in September, the latest album "Lateness of Dancers" finds Taylor further exploring his never-ending metaphysical quandaries, but it also finds him expanding his emotional palette. "Dancers" feels, at times, like a direct response to the darkness that marked "Haw," or the uneasy trek into fatherhood of "Bad Debt." "Lucia" coasts on gentle acoustic guitar strums and buoyant organ and drum lines. "Day O Day," wherein Taylor sings about "a love so free," whips a little gospel sweetness into its affably loping country. "Chapter and Verse" is a lullaby dedicated to his daughter, Ione, to whom he sings "I can be your little rainbow, too."
But it's also a record full of lessons learned the hard way: "The misery of love is a funny thing," he sings on the swaying "Mahogany Dread." "The more it hurts / The more you think / You can stand a little pain."
"My sort of line on 'Lateness of Dancers' is that, you know, it's an album that finds a way to make peace with the lies that we tell ourselves in order to make life livable, you know what I mean?" Taylor says. "There are ways that we figure out to get through the day that may not be objectively truthful, but they're productive lies. And if we can find ways to live with them, at least for a little while, sometimes we need to."
Consider lead single "Saturday's Song." By outward appearances, it's a simple song about the plight of the working stiff and the weekend's elusive promise of release. But it's easygoing groove belies a burdensome weight. "I might get a little crazy," Taylor sings, but his soft, sighing cadence suggests that it's done more out of solace than celebration. And he knows darkness is still ahead; when Sunday comes, Taylor knows he'll "wanna D-I-E."
"I'm always giving kind of a circuitous answer to whether this is a happier record," Taylor says, "because ... in regards to these existential or spiritual questions, there have not been any resolutions. Maybe I've moved the needle a little bit in how I sit with these issues, but this is not the record that finds me answering these questions at all."
"I'm not looking for answers, really," Taylor quickly adds. "Because, you know, the journey is the answer, I think." S
Hiss Golden Messenger opens for Jason Isbell at the National on Thursday, Aug. 14, with doors opening at 7 p.m. and show at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28.50. nationalva.com.
Correction: Paradise of Bachelors reissued "Bad Debt," not Merge as previously reported.