Occupying the nebulous realm where neo-psychedelic country meets soulful Americana, Durham's Hiss Golden Messenger has steadily raised its national profile since breaking out with Lateness of Dancers in 2014. Before a North American tour that includes arena dates with Mumford & Sons, the band already has a follow-up LP to last year's Heart Like a Levee, which ended up on a slew of best-of lists in country and folk. Those songs had experienced a complex evolution before being issued on record. By contrast, Taylor had little time to ruminate on Hallelujah Anyhow, due Friday on Merge Records.
Taylor, now in his late thirties, has been writing songs since his teens, and he surrounds himself with musicians with a similar level of lifetime immersion. To record the ten songs on Hallelujah Anyhow, Taylor gathered several of his treasured musical cohorts over about two weeks in late June and early July, in a studio in Durham. It's a novel approach for someone whose records have reflected a sometimes painstaking approach in the studio.
Most of the core band—coproducer/bassist Brad Cook, keyboardist Phil Cook, guitarists Chris Boerner and Josh Kaufman, saxophonist Michael Lewis—played on Heart Like a Levee. Also on hand was drummer Darren Jessee of Ben Folds Five and Scott Hirsch, Taylor's former partner in Court & Spark and Hiss Golden Messenger when it began as a duo in 2007. Taylor also gathered an all-star vocal group, including Tift Merritt, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, Tamisha Waden, Skylar Gudasz, and Mac McCaughan. The skilled ensemble deftly gives flight to the musical influences that Taylor often proudly wears on his sleeve, sonically and lyrically, throughout the record.
Shortly after the LP was complete, Taylor released a statement that alluded to "clouds of fear and destruction" but concluded with "Love is the only way out" and a declaration that this music would be full of hope. Spiritual overtones are not unexpected from Taylor, whose songs often touch on faith and doubt and whose band and de facto alias could pass for the name of a Bible character. Even so, Hallelujah Anyhow feels like anything but a sermon.
Beginning at an easy gambol with "Jenny of the Roses," Hallelujah Anyhow starts to take wing three songs in on "Jaw," where a swooning three-note phrase serves as a leitmotif amid sublime interplay of horns, guitar, and mandolin. It's the kind of moment the band seems to delight in and one where it is most distinctly itself.
From there, the record begins to invoke Taylor's sources in rather more overt ways. "Harder Rain" seems to feint in a Dylan direction, but it does so by way of the world-weary feel of a song by The Band, replete with perfectly stinging Robbie Robertson-style accents and New Orleans horns. "I Am the Song," with its forward-pushing mid-tempo chug, is a dead ringer for a Tom Petty tune—you almost expect Mike Campbell to come in wailing solo over the top. It should sound fantastic at some of those arena shows.
"John the Gun" lifts the title of a chilling song by Fairport Convention, British folk-rock inventors, but capers into an Astral Weeks-style fandango replete with joyous scatting in the Van vein. "Domino (Time Will Tell)" nods to one of Morrison's hits, but sonically it feels wrought from the same hazy blend of Stax Records, Muscle Shoals, and Delta blues that the Stones concocted on Exile on Main Street. In closing, Taylor, ever the folklorist, takes us to church with the stirring gospel cadences of "When the Wall Comes Down," an invitation to lose our shackles and the source of the LP's hope-tinged shrug of a title.
Outside of a lengthy interview with Uncut, Taylor has avoided talking about the album, stating his wish for HGM to be seen as a touring band and not a vehicle for putting out records. The glorious alchemy the ensemble achieves here, in an extremely compressed recording process, goes beyond musical skills and touches on a fellowship. That's a promising prospect.