Taylor puts it a little more poetically on “Lion/Lamb,” a song on Virgo Fool, the box’s bonus disc: “It’s hard to be free—we all search for new shackles.”
Last December, Taylor was enjoying an unseasonably warm evening before a show in Saxapahaw, North Carolina. His bandmates were still deep in a two-hour rehearsal, warming up for a two-and-a-half-hour concert later that night. After years of playing in opening acts, granted at most a 15-minute sound check and a 40-minute set, the musicians were enjoying the luxury. “We just like to play,” Taylor grinned.
The venue, a repurposed, disused textile-dyeing plant, sits on the bank of the Haw River, the namesake of the 2013 record Haw, which is included in the new box. Its first track mentions another North Carolina river, the Nantahala. Place names from across the South pepper Taylor’s lyrics: Rockingham, Biloxi, Shreveport. Hiss’s music draws on a range of southern musical genres, from gospel to hillbilly, soul to twang. But Taylor didn’t grow up steeped in those traditions. He grew up in Orange County, California, and he hated it.
“I had a wonderful childhood, but the place that I am from is not a place that I recognize spiritually,” he says. “The South offered me a doorway into a relationship with my environment that felt [like it was] living and stretched into the past. The past matters here. It’s complicated and messy and bloody, and beautiful and confusing, but it’s the vernacular.”
Taylor doesn’t claim to be a southerner, but he bristles at what he sees as lazy assumptions about the region. Speaking a few days after Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in a U.S. Senate race, Taylor mocked what he felt was a one-dimensional caricature of Alabama voters, with white, rural, conservative Alabamians eclipsing the state’s depth.
“‘That’s what you get, it’s Alabama,’” he imitates, dismissively. “I’ve been through Alabama like 25 times in the past five years, and that’s not the Alabama I know. I mean, granted, I’m running in certain circles, but those circles exist, and the boundaries of those circles are porous. All kinds of people pass through those circles.”
Folklore collection paid terribly, and Taylor couldn’t see himself in academia, so he chose one of the few careers with worse prospects for both pay and career advancement and returned to music. Bad Debt was officially released in 2010, and the following year he produced Poor Moon, which set the rough template for the Hiss Golden Messenger sound. The band combined the haunting mountain sound with a ’70s rock thump, horn parts, and electric guitars. On Poor Moon and its successor, Haw, Taylor revisited many of the Bad Debt songs, adapting them for a full band.
David Bowie called Poor Moon “mystical country, like an eerie yellowing photograph.” Haw is better still, confronting the tensions posed by Taylor’s newfound success. In the liner notes, the music writer Amanda Petrusich sums up the album’s central question: “What if all the things I want exist in opposition to each other?” The record begins pleading, over a pounding beat, “Well, let me be the one I want / Well, let me love the one I want,” and closes with an accepting, or resigned, refrain: “What shall be shall be enough.” Hiss’s growing fame was enough for the band to get a contract with Merge Records, the powerhouse indie label, which is releasing the new box set this fall. The rights to the old records were reverting to Taylor, and he wanted to see them in circulation.
Compilations are typically the province of artists on the downswing of their career, but for Hiss the set marks a rise. In 2014, the band released its Merge debut, Lateness of Dancers. It took nearly two years for the next album to see the light of day—Heart Like a Levee, which began as a commission to write songs inspired by the late documentary photographer William Gedney’s work in rural Kentucky. Frustrated by the long gestation of Levee, Hiss then quickly recorded its next record, 2017’s Hallelujah Anyhow, whose title seems like as good a summation of Taylor’s worldview as any.