Terms of Surrender
Terms of Surrender is the eighth album for Hiss Golden Messenger (HGM) in their storied career, now over a decade long. HGM has long established their signature sound that fuses gospel, country, pop and rock in a way like no other band. They are hard to define and certainly seem to like it that way. Much of the appeal is in the way they blend the instrumentation – the acoustic feel of guitars and mandolins, the aching sweep of a lap steel, and the mesmerizing lines of electric piano, organ, and synthesizers creating gospel grooves and poppy hooks for leader MC. Taylor’s songs. Live the band can bring a tune to low gospel hush and within minutes start jamming like the best of jam bands. Here, though, Taylor is determined to run a gamut of emotions and reflections, extending form parenthood to joy, hope, loneliness, and the predicament we find ourselves in, vacillating from dark to light in these troubled times.
Apparently, Taylor had a tumultuous year of many dark moments as he tried to balance the demand of music and a home life. These ten songs were culled down from over 40 written in various locations. The album opens with the tune “I Need a Teacher” with this lyric – “Another year older. Debt slightly deeper, Paycheck smaller. Goddamn, I need a teacher.’’ Headdresses the dynamic between father and grown son on “Cat’s Eye Blue” with this piercing line – “Is this wicked word too bad to be spoken? You let the heart attack in. One taste and it’s broken.” And, he later shows adoration for his daughter in “Happy Birthday Baby,” seemingly hoping that she can reach his son (her brother) in ways that he hasn’t been able to. It’s a bit puzzling but again, that was Taylor’s intent, to make a “wandering” record. Here are those lines – “Happy birthday, baby/Go love your brother now/It’s a strange gidt, maybe/Girl you know me better-better than I know myself.” All three of these songs have been released as singles and there’s a video you can access for “I Need a Teacher.”
The main core of HGM returns including the terrific gospel-oriented solo artist Phil Cook who plays keyboards, guitar and harmonica, Phil’s brother Brad (bass, mandolin and synthesizer), Josh Kaufman (lap steel, acoustic guitar, synthesizers) and Matt McCaughan (drums, percussion and Omnichord). New friends Aaron Dessner (guitars, piano) (The National), and singers Jenny Lewis, Madalyn Stefanak, and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig also join for this album which was recorded in Los Angeles, Nashville, and upstate New York. It could be their most genre-defying album to date.
The album theme is summed up well in the second song “Bright Direction (You’re a Dark Star Now)” – “Move me In some bright direction/Looking to be captured/Looking for my freedom/ Oh, dreams will come to get you/So careful what you’re wishing /Your family might correct you/Your heart might take a pounding/Make sure you take a picture.” More insight is provided in a long essay that Taylor composed to explain the album (it’s helpful since it’s not easy for the casual listener to decipher it all). Here’s are some excerpts from the two closing paragraphs – “I composed the songs that became Terms of Surrender with no guarantee that they would ever become a record; they felt too raw to be of interest to anyone but myself. They were my therapy and my church. But then we were there in Aaron Dessner’s studio in upstate New York, and in Sound City in L.A., and Roger Moutenot’s Haptown Studio in Nashville, and Phil Cook’s harmonica was screaming and Jenny Lewis was singing and Josh Kaufman’s guitar was etching the cosmos, and I realized that maybe these songs were good for something after all, and it wasn’t my year to die. And I was glad—appreciative, maybe—of the previous year because things on the other side now looked sweeter and brighter and not so dire. And through the songs ran a line—the most important theme of the whole record, I know now—about love, and how nothing of value that I have created would exist without it, and I better goddamn well keep my eye on it. Love is so powerful that people made religion to give a name to it, but if we don’t treat it with a sensitive touch, it disappears like smoke. I had a dream once, many years ago, where I heard a voice say “God is love,” and I felt it with my whole being. This record is a reminder of that dream. I am a work in progress…. “—M.C. Taylor, Durham, North Carolina
Lest that be intimidating, understand that you’ll hear apologies, pleas, expressions of love, and those lost and confused feelings too. Taylor is no different from the rest of us. He just has the courage to write about his feelings. For a decade now, legions of fans have attached their own meaning and imagery to his songs. Here’s another chance to do that.
- Jim Hynes