A California hardcore kid who moved to North Carolina about 20 years ago to pursue a rootsier strain of self-discovering earnestness, country-soul singer-songwriter MC Taylor is the kind of nice guy you want to root for. How nice? His sixth LP as the leader of Hiss Golden Messenger opens with “I Need A Teacher,” a sunny slice of Seventies-steeped wonderment, redolent of Little Feat and the Allman Brothers, in which Taylor prays for a shot of redemption in our “broken American moment.” In the musical tradition he’s working in, a song about needing a “teacher” would usual imply the mystical search for a spiritual guide. But the song’s video implies his mind is closer to that of a dad as worried about his kids’ coming school year than his own search for meaning. It opens with footage of North Carolina teachers during a walkout last May to protest state budget cuts, and then spools through a series of shots that dwell lovingly on their faces, and those of the students supporting them, mixed with images of their protest. It’s an inspiringly optimistic vision of good people demanding a fairer world, broken American moment be damned.
All of Terms of Surrender follows that sweetly humane vibe, balancing Taylor’s feelings of depression and doubt with gorgeously homespun music and a sense of family as guiding light in difficult moments. “Happy Birthday, Baby” is a gently buoyant message to his young daughter, in which Taylor apologizes for his own shortcomings. “Bright Direction (You’re a Dark Star Now)” meditates on the grounding influence of loved ones. On the gorgeously fragile “Down At the Uptown,” he sings “Mama, I’m standing on the ledge-i-o/Run, jump or fly? I think I caught a bad one.”
But if the emotions get rough, the music he makes with his responsive band and guest pals like Jenny Lewis and the National’s Aaron Dessner feels like a balm. The spacious guitar pastorale “My Wing” evokes the Grateful Dead at their most wide-open, while the serpentine roots-blues “Whip” is an intimation of mortality that brings to mind Bob Dylan’s early-21st century albums. “Bright Direction (You’re A Dark Star Now”) is carefully detailed, country-ish folk-rock a la Wilco, whose Jeff Tweedy is an obvious touchstone for Taylor’s fusion of comforting rock and uncomfortable frames of mind. Considering the fact that Taylor often seems to be singing to his kids, this is one instance where the term “dad-rock” might actually have some meaning.
The album’s title track is especially poignant, a soulful piano piece that recalls the adult stock-taking of Eighties John Hiatt. Taylor’s craggy voice creaks with burden as he reaches for a kind of middleground between giving in to his fears, and the idea that life itself can always give you something bigger to obsess over. “It’s one thing to bend, my love,” he sings, clearly addressing his wife, “but another to break it.” He turns shouldering his everyday burden into a moment of everyday beauty.