In early 2010, M.C. Taylor – the mainstay of the loose Hiss Golden Messenger collective – trekked back home to Piedmont, North Carolina. Fresh from a frustrating encounter with the music business, riddled with doubts and troubled by the mess the world was engulfed in, he sat down at the kitchen table of a draft-ridden wooden house during the bitterly cold winter to cut these 12 freshly-penned tracks.
It sounds like the premise for a Bon Iver-shaped modern folk success story. However, the original 9-track edition of Bad Debt barely made a dent on its original 2010 release, which might just be how Taylor – the only musician you’ll hear in action here – wanted it at the time.
Taylor’s first major band, San Francisco-based The Court & Spark had disintegrated a few years earlier, having come short of turning the acclaim won by albums such as Bless You (2001) into wider success. In retrospect, the almost defiantly low-key Bad Debt could be heard as the sound of a songwriter retreating deeper into the woods, far away from commercial considerations and audience expectations, but still seeking to communicate with the few whose antennas are tuned to the right frequency. Ironically, by giving up any attempt to court mass appeal by putting the listener at ease, Taylor discovered the distinctive songwriting voice that would soon introduce him to a larger audience.
Many of these songs have since been mined to much fully deserved praise on the full-band HGM records Poor Moon (2011) and Haw (2013); as a songwriting portfolio, Bad Debt is pretty impressive stuff. A few fully focused listens later, it also emerges as a truly compelling listening experience. The highlights of the first HGM record, 2008′s Country Hai East Cotton (collected on the From Country Hai East Cotton EP) were very strong. However, the wild leaps from smooth FM rock to dub hues brought to mind a songwriter and band in search of sound and style to call their own. Bad Debt displays no such hesitation. These sparse, hypnotic songs sound like they were carved from the soil, slices of elemental Americana storytelling that could have seen the light of day at any point since the early days of the 20th century, with just the passing reference to modern concerns (recent wars, economic woes, hotels, Jim Beam) to tie the tunes explicitly into our times.
It’s not the easiest of listens, that’s for sure. Thoroughly hiss-infested, with just a spot of echo here and there to add to the naked one-take feel, Bad Debt (recorded on a basic tape recorder) makes Nebraska sound like a full-blown Spector production. What it lacks in crowd-pleasing polish is gained in atmosphere. Intimate doesn’t begin to cover it: listening to Bad Debt feels like we’re gate-crashing a solitary jam session where someone had secretly left a tape recorder running. Most importantly, the songs are uniformly excellent. There are no easy answers in Taylor’s songwriting (but neither is there needless obliqueness), but the theme of struggling to find your way in an uncaring world, pitched halfway between the Bible-infused ruminations of early country and low-living road songs of modern variations of the same stuff, seems to run through the album. It’s a miracle that the brooding blues of “No Lord Is Free”, the languid back-home ruminations of “Straw Man Red Sun River Gold” and the jubilant yet blue gospel hues of “Drum” haven’t popped up on subsequent HGM releases, all three seeming far too potent to be left languish on a long-unavailable obscurity. “Super Blue” and “Jesus Shot Me In The Head” sounds fresh to the point of still being formed as they are performed; it’s easy to imagine Taylor figuring out the fuller arrangements that both would take on Poor Moon during the instrumental breaks. Best of all is the wary optimism of “Serpent Is Kind (Compared to Man)“: the meatier arrangement on Haw is lovely, the pure yearning in evidence on this version trumps it. Ultimately, though, it’s the vocals that elevate Bad Debt from a completist-only curio to genuinely rewarding listening. Tonally, Bad Debt is all stark monochrome, but Taylor’s totally committed, finely nuanced performances bring these downtrodden tales of characters who find it “hard to tell, how the hell, to get another chance” (“Super Blue”) to vivid multicolour: at best, Taylor seems spellbound by these tunes. If you’re willing to pay attention, you’ll soon feel the same.
After Bad Debt, HGM expanded into a full band (centred on Taylor’s Court and Spark colleague, multi-instrumentalist Scott Hirsch) as a recording unit. However, Taylor continued to show very little interest in commercial considerations. 2011′s superb Poor Moon – undoubtedly one of the finest Americana release in a long, long time on its release – was initially issued in a minuscule printing. Impressively, the musically more adventurous Haw proved even better, securing Taylor’s reputation as one of the foremost updaters of the bygone American country-got-soul tradition, more interested in, say, Larry Jon Wilson and J.J. Cale than the customary ‘alt. country’ touchstones. However, on stage HGM remains a predominantly solo enterprise, as evidenced London Exodus, the download-only document from Taylor’s 2013 UK tour that accompanied early orders of Bad Debt. In any other setting London Exodus would be a triumph, but the compelling sense of dread and foreboding that hangs over most of Bad Debt makes it a hard act to follow in a similar solo acoustic guise. Having said that, any opportunity to hear recent HGM highlights such as “Sufferer (Love My Conqueror)” should be grasped with both hands, and the mini-covers set with touring companion William Tyler – especially a wonderfully maudlin take on country cut “Drinkin’ Thing” – that closes the gig is essential listening to any fan. Bad Debt, on the other hand, is required listening to anyone interested in modern American songcraft. This album, which has had every bit as much bad luck as the characters that populate it (much of the original stock was destroyed in a warehouse fire during the London riots), deserves to be rescued from the jaws of obscurity.