For a moment, or at least for a record, Michael Taylor sounded like a man with no friends. On 2010's Bad Debt, Taylor—the sole constant member of one of America's best modern folk-rock acts, Hiss Golden Messenger—closed with "Drum," a song about community, family and sharing the good news of impending happiness. "I beat my drum/everybody to come running," Taylor sang at the start, his voice cracking with delight. "I beat my drum all the day."
But four years ago, there was no drum for Taylor, no everybody, no one running toward his music. Instead, after a failed attempt at a rock 'n' roll career in California, Taylor and his young family had relocated to North Carolina, holing up in a lonely house in the woods of Pittsboro and starting again. Taylor recorded the pieces of Bad Debt by himself at the kitchen table, as his newborn son slept nearby. His old bandmates were scattered across two coasts, and he had few plans to track down new ones. So, on "Drum," he alone keeps the rhythm with his guitar, a scrim of static sitting just beneath the strings and a hint of echo suggesting that he's somewhere more exotic than home. Taylor's tone is halting and slight, as though he's sending up a plea with no thought that someone might ever answer.
"Drum" also ends Lateness of Dancers, the third album Taylor has made since those solitary days at the kitchen table. And he again starts it solo, counting off the beat and strumming his six strings. But that's where the similarities stop: Mark Paulson's bright fiddle and Phil Cook's affable banjo shoot in just before Taylor starts to sing, his voice so resolved and loud that you can hear the faint crackle of distortion when he hits the word "everybody." There's bass verve and organ cry, and this time, when Taylor reaches the song's central proclamation, an entire chorus of friends rises up to meet him. "Take the good news/and carry it away/Take the good news/and spirit it away," they sing, practically shouting out the orders in harmony. That 2010 message, it seems, was delivered. His friends are here to help.
An obscure British label issued Bad Debt in a small, poorly promoted batch, but the size of its success hardly mattered, as Taylor's rising reputation—and the band of friends that surround him on Lateness of Dancers—began in earnest back at home, in North Carolina. Taylor began connecting with the Triangle's network of musicians, some of whom backed him on his next two excellent records, 2011's Poor Moon and 2013's Haw, released by the upstart Chapel Hill label Paradise of Bachelors. (They reissued Bad Debt earlier this year, too.)
Lateness of Dancers is Hiss Golden Messenger's first for Merge and the most magnetic record of Taylor's career. It also represents the peak of Taylor's Triangle immersion and his connection with a new circle, of which "Drum" is only the metaphorical culmination. While Lateness of Dancers is Hiss Golden Messenger's most accessible and best-produced album, it manages to feel like a series of late-night hangs, backyard barbecues, bleary-eyed mornings and very deep conversations, too.
The irrepressible "Saturday's Song" is a weekend warrior's celebration of self-medication, for instance, where the whiskey helps to "heal myself" and "feel no pain"; you can imagine Taylor and his pals working through its Grateful Dead-like guitar coda or careful harmonies in the backyard. "Mahogany Dread" extols and laments adulthood all at once: being in love, being a parent, being convinced that the carefree miscreants of previous Hiss Golden Messenger albums can't come around here no more. "Do you think it's up to me?" he wonders, momentarily irked by his lack of choice. But his newfound local compatriots—a crack rhythm section, a gigantic organ run, a crackling electric guitar lead—are there to offer company for the inevitable march to the end.
Surrounded by eight Triangle musicians (and Nashville's William Tyler and New York's Scott Hirsch, both longtime collaborators), Taylor feels newly comfortable with intimacy, too. His previous material often abstracted his anxieties, but Lateness of Dancers feels confessional. The exquisite "Black Dog Wind (Rose of Roses)" seems at times less like a song than an oral history shared among friends by the fire; Taylor tells the tale of his hardscrabble father and his pleading mother, who begged him to keep close to home. "Goddamn that man, but what he told me sticks," Taylor sings, his voice more simultaneously fragile and forceful than it's ever been. "We've gotta cross that river in a black dog wind." Elijah, Taylor's newborn back in the days of Bad Debt, delivers the introduction to the troubled but tender "Day O Day (A Love So Free)."
Some might hear Lateness of Dancers and think that Taylor's gone soft and straight, supplanting his previous religious hand-wringing for songs about day-drinking and relieving existential burdens with cute samples of his kids and crickets. The upward move from Paradise of Bachelors to Merge might reinforce that feeling, too.
But these 10 songs are more complicated than that, reflecting Taylor's twin acceptance of his own age and his roles as a son, father and husband and his admission that he'll never be completely at rest. He is positive here but not perfect, wise but not foolproof. "If I had wings like a dove, maybe I could see it as a peaceful world," he sings at one point during a noise-addled swampy blues number. "But, hey, I'm afraid I'm a raven." Now, in front of a set of strangers wider than he ever expected back at that kitchen table, and surrounded by a set of trusted local pals he didn't yet have, Taylor is honest and at ease with his own successes and failures.
Label: Merge Records
This article appeared in print with the headline "Words with friends."