Album: Bad Debt

Artist: Hiss Golden Messenger

Label: Paradise of Bachelors

Release Date: January 14, 2014




 Bad Debt is elementally simple, just the thrum of chords, the fire-lit spark and shadow of M.C. Taylor’s voice, yet it packs a gut punch. He recorded it, the story goes, at a kitchen table while his infant son slept, working through the gathering uneasiness of a worldwide financial crisis in these unadorned melodies. The disc is quiet, intense, unsettled, grounded in old-time-y forms but stripped of their certainty.   

 The disc was dogged by problems, recorded to cassette and mastered for release but destroyed in a London warehouse fire, set off, appropriately enough, by riots over income inequality. And yet here it is, four years later, as the economy begins to twitch to life (at least for some people). It is just as mournful, just as beautiful, just as relevant.

 Bad Debt considers destitution from a variety of angles, the hardness of work, the bleakness of prospects, the consolation of faith, the eventual release of death. His rueful waltz, “Balthazar’s Song” opens the disc, its lilting la-la-las not quite escaping the gravity of the song’s mournfulness. “Death don’t bother me,” he breathes later, in the disc’s title track, evoking slavery, crime and 19th century desperation in a track that feels hewed from old boards and nailed together with rusty iron.

 Still there’s a modern-ness in his approach that makes these songs feel relevant to right now. The setting shifts from present to historical with a slight twist of verbiage; the past co-exists with the now. “Jesus Shot Me in the Head” is particularly fascinating in this way, tethered by its regular picking and blues-y underpinnings to old-style folk, but infused with modern imagery. (“I was getting wrecked in a Motel 6/when he showed up in the back.”).

 Bad Debt includes an earlier version of “The Serpent Is Kind (Compared to Man)” (which also appeared on last year’s Haw), pointing up exactly how pared back and natural this reissue sounds. The song comes to us in this version sounding almost completely unmediated, as if Taylor were just then thinking about his father and his childhood as we listen and happened to have a guitar in hand. Not that Haw’s cut was overwrought, but this one breathes and grows like a living creature. Almost by accident, it seems, you can hear memory, skill and poetry converging in a lonely kitchen with a baby sleeping nearby.

 DOWNLOAD: “The Serpent It Kind (Compared to Man)”, “Bad Debt,” “Drum”

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