Being a traveling musician—an artist—is not a path toward a glamorous, fulfilling life. Even those lucky enough to get to make a living at it will likely emphasize that the grass is always greener. On his new record with Hiss Golden Messenger (HGM), M.C. Taylor comes to terms with that deep-seated conflict. Terms of Surrender, he calls it, and on it he grapples with his identity as an artist, a husband, a father, a friend, a brother. That identity is called into question after years on the road, living out of suitcases, sleeping in motels and sitting behind the wheel of a van. In the midst of what felt like an endless quest for meaning and purpose, Taylor wrote and recorded the 10 tracks that makeup Terms of Surrender, and ended up with something that feels nothing like anything he’s made before it.
Hiss Golden Messenger, and more specifically Taylor, have always created art with a conscience. Throughout his prolific career, Taylor has been firmly rooted in a cause greater than himself. He seeks social justice not only in his songwriting but in his live performances. Seeing a HGM show (and I’ve seen countless) is much like attending a heady, spiritual gathering wherein everyone loves one another and leaves feeling cleansed, better than we were before. The band cultivates this through the obvious passion that comes through in their playing, but also in how they communicate with their audiences, encouraging us to be kinder, more compassionate human beings. That compassion has been turned more inward with Terms of Surrender, as Taylor explores his experiences with depression and feeling untethered. Whether in the dark distortion of “Whip” or the laid-bare, piano-laden title track, this album is a heady work by a band that continues to push their boundaries to create something complicated and beautiful.
Still, in true HGM fashion, Terms of Surrender is uplifting. Sweet harmonies and backing vocals from Jenny Lewis stunningly complement Taylor’s warm, reedy voice, particularly on the slinky “Old Enough to Wonder Why (East Side—West Side)” and the gorgeous “Bright Direction (You’re a Dark Star Now).” Sonically, this album has a grooviness we’ve always gotten hints of on past HGM records, but it feels more relaxed this time, more owned. Album opener “I Need a Teacher” combines organ with electric guitar resulting in an epic, layered sound as Taylor sings about looking for guidance through the dark times. “Cat’s Eye Blue” is a slow, soulful drip, and “Happy Birthday Baby” is an eyes-closed, hip-swaying love letter from Taylor to his daughter.
Taylor may have made it through some trying times, but the biggest takeaway from Terms of Surrender seems to be that the work is never done. These songs find him reconnecting with himself and his loved ones, feeling fortunate to have made it this far, but still longing to have it both ways, to be in two places at once—physically and spiritually. There has always been aching in HGM’s music, but never more than we hear on this record. “It’s a complex equation,” Taylor sings. “It’s a complex disposition.”