Track of the Day: 'Heart Like a Levee' by Hiss Golden Messenger

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I’m the type of music fan that likes to immerse myself in an artist or an album, listening over and over again. But seldom do I find myself listening to the same song over and over, back to back. That’s how I’ve been consuming “Heart Like a Levee,” the title track from Hiss Golden Messenger’s new album, which comes out today:

I’ve been trying to figure out why I keep listening to it. One reason is that enigmatic title: What does it mean to have a heart like a levee? Another is the tension between the gently rolling music and its bittersweet lyrics. Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor has always been a highly personal songwriter, but the latest album grew out of a commission by Duke Performances, which paired Taylor up with the late photographer William Gedney, some of whose photographs reside in the university’s archives. In contrast to Taylor’s confessional style, Gedney was a private, nearly reclusive figure, barely known when he died of AIDS in 1989.

Taylor worked with a series of photos that Gedney took in Kentucky in the 1970s; one adorns the cover of Heart Like a Levee, and it’s on the video above. Trying at first to write songs about the photos, he eventually gave up and switched tacks, writing songs about his own life but inspired by the images. One striking line here: “Do you hate me, honey, as much as I hate myself?” Taylor sings the song over a hypnotic, circular chord pattern, with a catchy, chiming guitar riff.

This is folk-inflected music, but it’s not rudimentary or primitive. Hiss Golden Messenger has traded some of the thump of previous albums for a sound that’s almost proggy at times. (The album’s co-producer, Bradley Cook, was also responsible for another of my favorite albums this year, which I wrote about here in June.) Amid the rich texture, you can pick out Ryan Gustafson’s banjo, Phil Cook’s pealing guitar, and Tift Merritt’s backing vocals.

Gedney’s photographs from rural Kentucky are striking for what they are not: Though they depict people without much money, this is no Walker Evans-style catalog of destitution. The Cornett family he captured was homey but not simplistic, earthy but not unintelligent, vulnerable but open. They are photographs of real people, and this is a song about real people. “Heart Like a Levee” is a fitting counterpart.

As a bonus, here’s a live performance, showing Gedney’s photographs, as arranged by Jim Findlay, projected behind the band:

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