Taylor suffers defeat graciously, but without denying the pain of loss, and that perspective weaves throughout the album.
Hiss Golden Messenger began as the folk project of M.C. Taylor, and if Taylor had an academic’s mind behind his music, he had an Appalachian’s sense of place and lo-fi approach to recording. Since those early tracks, it has expanded into a more or less proper band turning its folk and country influences into something clearly contemporary. As the group reaches its full sound, adding help here from Jenny Lewis and Aaron Dessner, Taylor turns even further inward for Terms of Surrender, possibly his most personal record yet.
The previous year hadn’t been great for Taylor, suffering not only loss and depression but the weight of familial concerns. In crafting songs he initially thought to private to make it to an album, he pushed into these pressures, sometimes conceding ground, sometimes finding a way through them. The titular track closes the album, exemplifying Taylor’s position, where he’s willing to bend but not break. He suffers defeat graciously, but without denying the pain of loss. That perspective weaves throughout the album.
The album opens with the wisdom of “I Need a Teacher,” one of the disc’s jauntier numbers. Taylor makes it clear that he hasn’t figured it out, but he hasn’t given up on everything either. “Down at the Uptown” marks a turn away from suicidal ideation; Taylor still intends to live well. It won’t be easy, either in “the broken American moment” of the first track or with “someone sleeping off a bad one” in “Uptown.” Taylor’s world contains plenty of brokenness, and he doesn’t pretend that restoration comes through a couple of songs and a cheerful attitude.
Hope does come, though, fleeting it in its way, but with enough impression in its afterimage to remain vital. “My Wing,” a bit of stream-of-consciousness written in central Virginia’s countryside, provides some energy without denying our trials and failures. “Oh, my wing just learned to fly/ Just a little way in an empty sky,” Taylor sings, nearing a takeoff that won’t get him far, but will get him somewhere, emboldened by the voices of children not yet weighed down.
Hiss Golden Messenger follows that track with a more experienced one, the soulful “Old Enough to Wonder Why (East Side—West Side).” Eventually we’re all old enough for greater worries, for nails chewed down and songs of innocence behind us. As with much of Terms, there’s no ultimate relief here, but a little country-funk paired with a tiny bit of community and empathy can go a long way.
Terms of Surrender covers necessary terrain. Taylor delves into his grief and anxiety without turning maudlin or opaquely personal. Despite his surrender to some elements of life, he hasn’t given up, but he doesn’t make hope a false promise. There’s a realism here that can offer great rewards than blind optimism. Sometimes our best out from under is through surrender, not in an ultimate sense, but in a serious recognition of where we are, including both our trauma and our ability to continue. Throughout this album, Hiss Golden Messenger sits comfortably right at that turning point, surrendered but undefeated.