On a recent Wednesday night, Michael Taylor played the part of a ghost. Onstage at The Pinhook in Durham, Taylor stood front and center, surrounded by the surviving members of Magnolia Electric Co., the country-rock-soul outfit that once staked new signposts on the pathway between grit and grace. In March, Jason Molina, that band's founder and anchor, died, losing a decade-long war with overwhelming alcoholism. So Taylor led the remnants through their relative hits, seething reverently at the end of "John Henry Split My Heart" and drifting through the electrified loneliness of "Farewell Transmission." For those onstage and those Magnolia adherents in the packed club, the set was the deserved smile at the end of months—years, even—of frowns.
The most revelatory aspect of the performance, though, was neither the songs Taylor sang nor how well he sang them. It was, instead, how he sang them—that is, standing, just at the stage apron, a proper rock 'n' roll frontman, high on his own two feet. For years, to see Taylor as Hiss Golden Messenger, his decidedly humble folk-rock enterprise that reissues one of its early releases this week, was to see Taylor sit on a chair or stool, knees bent and eyes cast over the body of his acoustic guitar, whether he was playing by himself or surrounded by an ever-revolving backing band.
Even as Hiss Golden Messenger's reputation and audience has grown, largely on the strength of two wonderful full-length albums for the Chapel Hill label Paradise of Bachelors, Taylor has remained seated at the center. It is, he once told me, his way of keeping the project close and quiet: "The emotional core of it is really small and really personal. It is music that I like to play, music that I can play confidently, music that sounds only like me."
That very approach gestates on Bad Debt, a slim and rather obscure collection Taylor issued on the British label Blackmaps in 2010, before Hiss Golden Messenger had begun its stepwise ascent toward prominence. The original pressing was lost in a warehouse fire during the London riots of 2011; Paradise of Bachelor's reissue includes the dozen songs Taylor always intended for the release, an acoustic but often uneasy trek into adulthood. These songs stem from a period of ostensible transition for Taylor, then a new father living in a small riverside house in Pittsboro with his fledging family. He'd recently started graduate school in Chapel Hill, and he was something of an ex-musician, a California bandleader who'd burned out on the music industry before settling into the bucolic woods of Chatham County. That doesn't mean he didn't write songs, of course, or even love to sing them. He recorded these numbers, at home and alone, mostly for himself with a cassette recorder that sat on the kitchen table. His firstborn, Elijah, slept nearby.
These dozen ruminations collect Taylor's crises of character and confidence and his internal debates about whether or not he can overcome them— if he wants to at all. Recorded during the daylight hours, these songs expose the questions that simmer in our own heads as many of us struggle to fall asleep to the sunlight. Potential gravesites and circling reapers line the lyrics, as do memories of benders and escapes and the slow mission to swear them off forever, to come home to roost like a good son or husband or father. During "Far Bright Star," a perfectly sweet but fretful ode to family, Taylor counters an image of his newborn's "little light" with his own tendency for selfishness: "Sometimes I stand alone, and I don't know why. You know I love you, babe, don't you?" his voice tucked-in and private, an elevated whisper. The tune feel as much like a father's tender lullaby as a monologist's fraught confessional. Taylor seeks forgiveness for ancient sins and mistakes he's not even certain he'll make. Bad Debt is a concerted effort to guard the future against both present and past.
Bad Debt remains a stunning collection of songs. But its reissue comes after Taylor has grown the Hiss Golden Messenger enterprise into a vaunted touring concern, after he has stepped center stage and fronted a proper rock band. These 12 songs reassert the project's essence, revealing that nothing has changed: From his little seat in the kitchen or onstage, aylor wonders aloud about life's purpose, pleasures and perils, knowing full well that there's no easy answer in heaven or hell.Label: Paradise of Bachelors
This article appeared in print with the headline "Intimate takes."