Music Reviews
Terms of Surrender

Hiss Golden Messenger Terms of Surrender

(Merge) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

After all the positivity that was espoused on 2017’s Hallelujah Anyhow, it would have been fair to have thought that Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor had made his peace with all comers. So it’s something of a surprise that Taylor describes 2018 as a desperate year, not one to only smell the roses. The batch of songs that Taylor penned for Terms Of Surrender echo of jailhouse confessions, and are ones that there was no initial intent to set to music. Thankfully nudged by The National’s Aaron Dessner and longtime cohorts Phil and Brad Cook, Taylor has laid down his darkest thoughts since Bad Debt’s recessionary ruminations.

The opening track, I Need A Teacher, bursts forth at what sounds like mid-song—and captures Taylor and his band at their most rollicking. The cry for help and acknowledgment of a need for atonement are buried under a sea of pulsing guitars and Phil Cook’s ever-present organ fills, making it one of the album’s more hopeful sounding moments. Though the song calls for “beauty in the broken American moment,” most of Terms Of Surrender contends with Taylor’s personal struggles and doubts.

Recorded at Dessner’s Long Pond studio, the most powerful moments of Terms Of Surrender are its most strident ones. Ones where guitars howl and reverberate off recording room walls that are collapsing in on the album’s protagonist. The peak of desperation arrives on Whip, which invokes Blind Willie Johnson’s God Moves On The Water in both lyrics and sinister tone. Shakers sound off like bags of bones, as if some backwoods voodoo conjuration is at play; the stuff of Johnny Conqueroo and rattlesnake hides. The same sense of dread permeates Old Enough To Wonder Why, but in a quieter, banjo-spiked vamp that is more a suggestion of a song than a song itself. Taylor incants the names of his wife and children in an effort to resist the siren song of Jenny Lewis’ sultry self beckoning from the outskirts of town.

Darkness rolls in further on the smudged slide guitar of Down At The Uptown, which recounts one too many nights spent passing the hat. The song gives more than a redolent whiff of what the Stones coined the “ballrooms and smelly bordellos.” So it’s a bit ironic that some of the album’s less powerful moments are those where Taylor lets his foot off his own throat. Though there are references to lines crossed and vows bent to the point of breaking, the relief granted by songs such as Happy Birthday, Baby—and even the grasp at reconciliation on the title track—serve to break up the album’s otherwise ominous tone.

The cover image (expertly captured by Leah Sobsey) of a disheveled and barren nest fits the mood of Terms Of Surrender perfectly, if not unsettlingly so. On an album where Taylor nakedly reveals his most pressing moments of despair, it’s only in the album's handful of brighter moments that you wish for maybe just another small taste of the darkness. Taylor manages to flip his career-long look for the silver lining by acknowledging the pull of the worldly can only be put in a tidy little box for so long.