The Subversive Hope of Hiss Golden Messenger’s ‘Hallelujah Anywhow’

Music matters. Sometimes it voices things we didn’t know we resonated with. Music can carry our joys, give voice to our sorrows or become the voice of protest. And sometimes, “protest music” isn’t what you’d expect. Who expected folk music to fuel the 60’s?

Falling somewhere between Dylan, Van Morrison and the Grateful Dead in all the best ways but still carving out an identity of their own, North Carolina’s Hiss Golden Messenger‘s struggle to hold on to “peace, love, light and hope,” is the protest music we need.

I’m not not to presume the faith of others. I am a Christian. I don’t know if you are. I don’t know if Hiss Golden Messenger’s MC Taylor is. But Taylor’s lyrics have given voice to so much of the beauty that I find in following a Savior who would rather die for His enemies than kill them. I can’t help but hear in Taylor’s lyrics the promise of light even when the world seems dark. The band’s name evokes the dangerous beauty of the Tempter while the title of their latest album, ‘Hallelujah Anyhow’s’ seems to paraphrase Job 13:15, when, after losing everything, Job responds with: “Though God slay me, I will hope in Him.” Hallelujah Anyhow indeed.

For many, these are heavy days overshadowed by gathering storms. Our president stokes division rather than unity. Bigots in our midst are not new but they are newly emboldened. It’s hard not to feel like War is crouching at the door, ready to pounce. The struggle for equality rages on while white supremacists are demanding equal air time. One might be excused for giving in to cynicism and sometimes, hopelessness doesn’t seem that far off.

My own faith keeps that hopelessness at bay. Christianity presents the subversive hope that the Light is winning, even as we sometimes believe that the darkness is rising. Love turns things upside down. As Brian Zahnd reminds us in Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, “Jesus’s solidarity is with the Abel-like victims, not with the Cain-like conquerors” and: “The cross is the place where human fear and anger are absorbed into God’s eternal and recycled into the saving mercy of Christ.” I don’t know MC Taylor’s fountain of hope, but whatever it is, he seems to drink deeply. I am thankful for an artist who believes in the power of Love.

While acknowledging that life can be a beat-down, Taylor refuses to lose hope. This is the protest music we need. Instead of giving in to division or fueling resentment, we must seek the beautiful resisting power of Love. One of the album’s last lines is from “When The Walls Come Down” and summarizes the struggle “It’s a beautiful world but painful child: step back, Jack, from the darkness.” This idea of beauty in the pain is woven through this record. This is the protest music we need. These might seem like dark days,  but we won’t give in. We must continually remind one another that the light is winning even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

Yes, the world is hard but there is always light in the darkness. Taylor sings “I’ve never been afraid of the darkness, It’s just a different kind of light” in “Jenny of the Roses” and  “It’s a strange, sweet kind of light, To be lost out in the darkness of the border” in “Lost Out In the Darkness.” Light in the darkness allows us to keep going. In “John the Gun,” Taylor resolves, “Though I’m torn and tattered: I’ll abide.” We can keep going. We must keep going. We must not give in. Love will win and the Light is breaking through.

The album’s theme is perhaps nowhere made more clear than in “When the Walls Come Down”:

What’cha gonna do
When the shackles fall
What you oughta do Is melt them down
Melt them down
Turn them into tools
and make a garden
On the prison grounds
Turn your chains to roses, child

There is power in pursuing beauty. We must cultivate instead of destroy. We can once again work for life from the ashes. We need to cling to the Light and strive for Peace. You’re not alone in wanting this and Taylor reminds us that it’s all worth it. Though we trip through “Harder rain” and  “Darker darkness,” if it’s up to me (and Taylor),  “A little love would go a long way.”