Review from www.pitchfork.com .
The story of how Bad Debt was destroyed has eclipsed the story of how it was created. M.C. Taylor wrote these songs in the months following the birth of his son in 2009, then he recorded them in the dead of the North Carolina winter on a cassette recorder at his kitchen table, playing softly so as not to wake the household. Taylor was all set to release those recordings as Bad Debt, his first wide release as Hiss Golden Messenger, but the CD stock was destroyed during the London riots of 2010, when his distributor’s warehouse was burned. The opening chords of “No Lord Is Free” sound all the more resolute for cutting so gingerly through the ambient hiss of Taylor’s kitchen.
It’s almost impossible to imagine the magnitude of such a setback for any artist, but especially for one trying to launch a new venture. That story has attached itself like a tall tale to the album, at least for those intrigued listeners who have dug deeper into Taylor’s catalog following the subsequent release of Poor Moon in 2011 and the mighty Haw in 2013. Yet neither story affects how we hear these modest and deeply moving songs three years later, when Bad Debt is finally getting a proper release—with three new tracks—via the Tar Heel State indie Paradise of Bachelors. There are two reasons this tale of tribulation persists: First, it exposes the consequences of that fire and makes very real the sense of monetary and professional loss. Second—and much, much more crucial—that fire seems almost biblical in nature, as though God Himself reached down and smote Taylor. It is a tribulation worthy of Job.
“Are you with me now”? Taylor sing-whispers at the very start of the album. He delivers the line in a hush, even before the guitar enters, and that question resonates as both a gentle invitation to the listener and an invocation of a heavenly host. Bad Debt is an album deeply concerned with the nature of faith and man’s relationship with his Maker. That title pretty much sums up the spiritual dynamic, although who owes what to whom remains mysterious and unresolved. The homespun quality of these recordings is crucial: They are raw and rough, humble and private.
He makes good use of that room. Listening to these dozen songs, you can almost measure its dimensions. That space and the lo-fi recording technology create a rustic reverb, as his strums and singing reverberate quietly against the walls. To that simple palette—which recalls the Tallest Man on Earth at his most reserved or M. Ward at his most forceful—Taylor adds what sounds like a foot tapping against the floor to “Straw Man Red Sun River Gold” and “The Serpent Is Kind (Compared to Man)”. On “Call Him Daylight” his vocals echo slightly, suggesting a conflicted soul. These are subtle flourishes, yet they add urgency and depth to these songs and reinforce the sense of a live performance or a late-night rumination.
That field-recording aesthetic is the musical equivalent of sackcloth, especially compared to the lusher Appalachian folk-rock arrangements on his subsequent albums*.* Heard in the skewed chronology of the growing Hiss Golden Messenger catalog, Bad Debtmay strike some listeners as mere demos, yet there is nothing missing from these performances, no sense of potential left untapped. These songs sound full and finished even in their austerity. Even so, a deep sense of uncertainty pervades every syllable and every strum, as though no question can ever be answer satisfactorily, and it is precisely that spiritual disaffection that separates Taylor from the artists for whom God’s existence and benevolence are givens. Rather than cynical or despairing, however, Bad Debt sounds hopeful, exuding a sense of hushed celebration. These are, after all, songs sung by a new dad.