IN HIS 1802 POEM "My Heart Leaps Up," William Wordsworth speaks of experiencing childlike joy and wonder upon witnessing a rainbow arc across the sky. "The Child is father of the Man," he writes. "And I could wish my days to be/Bound each to each by natural piety."
For M.C. Taylor, otherwise known by his nom de plume Hiss Golden Messenger, raising children has been the driving force behind his spiritual life, his long and complicated relationship with god, and his evolution as a songwriter. "In my case, having children made my music better," Taylor says on the phone from his home in Durham, North Carolina. "As my ways of being evolved, and ways of being with my family evolved, so does my music. It's always going to be changing."
Since the birth of his son, Elijah, in 2009, family and faith have been enduring themes in Taylor's music, beginning with the austere and haunting Bad Debt, self-recorded late at night on a cassette recorder in Taylor's kitchen as his infant son slept in the next room. Bad Debt represented a turning point in Taylor's music, addressing issues he would continue to explore in his two following albums, Poor Moon (2011) and Haw (2013).
But where those albums come from a place of anxiety of being a new father, in addition to personal struggles with belief, Taylor's latest album, Lateness of Dancers, is immediately noticeable for its vitality and buoyancy, at least musically, if not lyrically. Although the arrangements and tempo of many of the new songs have the feel of a rollicking, summer-evening jam session, the lyrics are the words of a man who has not yet found contentment with leading a quiet family life—a man who has not yet made peace with his god.
"I like the idea of songs having a heavy groove, contradicting how the lyrics read on paper," Taylor says. "People have been saying this album is more optimistic, but if you look at the words, there are still many dark clouds." This contradiction helps to explain how an otherwise upbeat song like "Mahogany Dread"—with the lines, "The misery of love is a funny thing/The more it hurts/the more you think/you can stand a little pain"—could be interpreted either as optimistic or bleak, depending on the listener.
Lateness of Dancers is Hiss Golden Messenger's first album for Durham's pivotal independent label Merge Records, but Taylor is quick to explain it was recorded fast, in just under a week ("the exact same way Poor Moon and Haw were recorded"), and with many of the same backing musicians—including longtime friend and collaborator Scott Hirsch, acclaimed guitarist William Tyler, and backing vocals from Mountain Man's Alexandra Sauser-Monnig. Lateness of Dancers could be described as country rock or mystical country, but, as with previous albums, Hiss Golden Messenger has its own agenda, which is how an apocalyptic, barn-burner like "I'm a Raven (Shake Children)" can precede a somber and quiet meditation on sons and fathers, "Black Dog Wind (Rose of Roses)."
Like Bad Debt, most of the songs on Lateness of Dancers were written and recorded shortly after the birth of a child—Taylor's second child, daughter Ione. But while the same paternal doubts and worries remain, Taylor now offers a glimmer of hope and light, as he sings on his tribute to his newborn daughter, "Chapter and Verse (Ione's Song)": "Your daddy is just as dark as can be/But I can be your little rainbow, too."