“Heart Like a Levee” (Merge Records), the new album from Chapel Hill’s Hiss Golden Messenger, is a genius piece of work. Beautiful and emotionally thorny, these 11 songs have the yearning gospel overtones typical for frontman Mike “M.C.” Taylor, who sounds like a man almost at war with himself. And the funny part is that “Heart Like a Levee” grew out of an assignment that Taylor sort of failed.
The album began as a 2015 Duke Performances “From the Archives” project, in which Taylor was commissioned to write a song cycle to accompany a set of photographs. The pictures in question were stark black-and-white images of life in a Kentucky coal-mining camp circa 1972, taken by the late documentary photographer William Gedney.
So Taylor dutifully put the photos up on his wall and set to work, only to hit a songwriting roadblock. He finally had to take the pictures down and turn to writing about what was really on his mind – issues of faith, family and hope that were consuming Taylor after he’d made the decision to leave the day-job world and pursue his music full-time.
“When I tried to write songs specifically about those pictures, it just didn’t feel quite right,” Taylor says now. “That kind of interpretation wasn’t my strong suit, I don’t think. And I was going through some really intense stuff that was causing me great anxiety. When I turned my focus back to writing more personally, the songs seemed to come out a lot better. I still feel really connected to those photos, even if the songs wound up not being about them.”
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In the end, Hiss Golden Messenger’s live performances of these songs worked fine as sonic accompaniment to the Gedney photos when “Heart Like a Levee” premiered at Duke last year. The photos also left their mark on their project, and not just because one of them serves as album-cover art.
Even after putting them aside, Taylor continued checking back in with the Gedney photos as he wrote, and he came to find resonant emotional truths within them. The resulting songs on “Heart Like a Levee” aren’t exactly foreboding, but they’re steeped in the hardness of the world. The very first song, “Biloxi,” works up to a palindrome-like chorus of, “It’s hard, Lord, Lord, it’s hard.” And the title track plaintively asks, “Do you hate me, honey/As much as I hate myself?”
“I don’t know if it’s the darkest record I’ve made, but I hope it’s bittersweet,” Taylor says. “That’s the direction I want my music to go, with happiness and sadness in equal measure and also open-heartedness. My intention is for it to feel open and inviting to people and grow it beyond the smallness I started with. There are a lot of questions on this record, vignettes having to do with communication – or mis-communication. That’s something I personally always try to work on. Sometimes it evolves, sometimes I have a hard time with it.”
Returning as Taylor’s co-pilot and co-producer for “Heart Like a Levee” is Megafaun’s Brad Cook, assisted by Tift Merritt on backup vocals, Portastatic/Bon Iver drummer Matt McCaughan and Brad’s brother Phil Cook. The principles have been collaborating for a while now, on and off the road, becoming as familiar with each other as with the issues of trying to balance personal and artistic lives.
“This record, I think the whole thing hangs together in a pretty powerful way,” Taylor says. “One upshot of me devoting all my days to music is I was able to write and throw away a lot more than the 11 songs here. It’s important to put a song through its paces, make sure it’s sturdy enough to hang around awhile. And with my family, it’s a tricky balance. As the one making the art, it’s obviously easier for me to see the value in it. But that’s hard to quantify for anyone else. Still, I want my kids to see me doing art because that’s important and I want them to be creative, too.”
Who: Hiss Golden Messenger, Natalie Prass
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Cat’s Cradle, 300 E. Main St., Carrboro
Info: 919-967-9053 or catscradle.com