Every new path taken in life brings a set of challenges. The joy, guilt, and soul searching can hit anyone hard in the gut. After the rise from his last record, Lateness of Dancer, M.C. Taylor – the genius behind Hiss Golden Messenger – had to contemplate the choice between being a full-time musician and an exciting job in Ethnography, where he was recording Indigenous music and culture. His decision to quit the job and give up a secure future of paying bills and supporting his family was a tough, tearful choice. But something remarkable came out of this emotional time – the arrive of Hiss Golden Messenger’s sixth studio album, Heart Like a Levee.
The record is full of dreams, faith, and fear. It was built from Taylor and his bandmates’ hardships of being touring musicians, who must constantly be on the move to meet the needs of their families. This album reflects all of those fears, frustrations, and dreams. The striking image of a young boy on the album’s cover encapsulates the realism and emotion of Taylor’s vast stories. The photograph was taken at a Kentucky mining camp in 1972 from William Gedney. Commissioned to write songs inspired by the mining camp, M.C. Taylor’s personal struggles and that of the mining camp became evident. With M.C. Taylor’s own hardships in mind and the photographs in front of him, the setting and mood of the album arrived.
The record starts off with the fantastic track, “Biloxi”, which draws us in with M.C. Taylor’s distinct nasally voice and soulful sound. It is evident that the lyrical message echoing through the album is “it’s hard Lord, Lord it’s hard”. The next track strays a little from the band’s original country-folk sound, as horns are added to “Tell Her I’m Just Dancing”. It is apparent that the band is growing musically and reaching new depths, but they keep it within reason and do a fantastic job doing so.
The title track, “Heart Like a Levee”, shares vocals between a female singer, and it is beautiful sing-along that emphasizes his strong songwriting ability. His lyrics, “Do you hate me honey, as much as I hate myself?”, once again echo the theme of the album. It’s not just an album of fear, however. The song shows a bright side to his choices in life with the words, “I’ll set the earth on fire for ya”.
The growth of the bands sound continues with “Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer”, which has a funky groove and heavy bass line. The song is like an improvising and nostalgic funk band experimenting with horns, bass, and heavy guitar effects. Tracks like “Cracked Windshield” and “As the Crow Flies” remind the listener of the good times. If all the autumn beauty could be wrapped up in music, it would be those. “Happy Day (Sister My Sister)” and “Say It Like You Mean It” give us that blanket of warmth in the arrangements and voice. The melody fills your soul like a warm tea in the early autumn mornings. “Highland Grace” closes off the record with a soulful sound, which suits M.C. Taylor’s voice.
It is the perfect ending to Heart Like a Levee, which is as close to flawless as an album can be. It blooms with an unexpected funkiness, explodes with an energy that accentuates the country and electric grooves within many of the tracks, and seamlessly flip from the high and low points in life. It is the emotional outpouring, however, that makes Heart Like a Levee a remarkable album. The music reaches our souls and makes us contemplate what was yet feel hopeful of what is to come. Creating these feelings is the hallmark of a great singer-songwriter, and Hiss Golden Messenger stands at the peak of their craft.
The deluxe version of Heart Like a Levee comes with a bonus album, Vestapol. I have yet to hear this version, but it includes eight unreleased tracks. Supposedly, M.C. Taylor recorded these songs between motel rooms and his home. The album is available via Merge Records.
The band features Phil Cook on piano, Bradley Cook on bass, Matt McCaughan (Bon Iver) on drums, Tift Merritt and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig on backing vocals, along with Matt Douglas and Michael Lewis on horns.
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