For those living in the American South, Hiss Golden Messenger bandleader and principal songwriter Mike (M.C.) Taylor told me, levees evoke myriad connotations that make their imagery quite intriguing to work with. A levee is constructed to prevent the overflow of a river or body of water. In a geographic region where torrential rains, particularly during hurricane season, are an annual occurrence, one of the vital questions involving these embankments is whether they will break or hold.

Often lumped under the all-encompassing umbrella of “Americana,” Hiss Golden Messenger albums slither in and out of various subgenres. Heart Like a Levee is no exception — an evocative blend of southern rock, country soul, swamp funk and bluegrass gospel, to name a few. Taylor, who has a graduate degree in American folklore, interrogates the rich history and intersections of southern music. In this way, Hiss Golden Messenger is the sonic equivalent of Taylor’s dissertation. Taylor told Rolling Stone that he sees his writing as “a quest to understand and position the vast musical traditions of the South as a living and contemporary language that gave birth to everything good in American music.”

Photo by Graham Tolbert 

Lyrically, Taylor knows that the seemingly commonplace can become a vessel for introspection. In “Biloxi,” the opening track on Heart Like a Levee, Taylor uses his eldest daughter’s birthday party as a leaping-off point to ponder life’s difficulties and the consequences of a career on the road. Having made the decision to quit his day job and provide for his family through music, Taylor knows that he’s likely to miss many moments with them. Remaining present and ensuring that “everybody in the whole damn place has gotta have a good time” are vital to making the fewer minutes he spends at home higher in quality. 

In “Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer,” an Atlanta rainstorm becomes a source of contemplation as the rhythm section pulses. The ostensibly simple question, “Should I drown in the Atlanta rain?” is gorgeously complex. Is Taylor asking his lover for permission, or is he pondering what might happen if the deluge overwhelms him? The answer isn’t clear, even as he demands, “Yes, one more time around / Tell you that you need me now / Tell me that you love me still / Like a mirror loves a hammer” as the brass beats down. The song’s intricacy doesn’t arise from any attempt at a big message. Instead, exploring what ordinary objects and images convey complicates the theme.

Heart Like a Levee features stark lyrics juxtaposed with beautiful instrumental arrangements and plenty of groove-worthy rhythms. Although his songs generally begin with an image that he is trying to unpack and elevate, Taylor doesn’t like explaining what his verses mean. Instead, he encourages listeners to derive their own meanings and interpretations. The question of how well this levee performs its essential function is up to whomever spins this record. In typical Hiss Golden Messenger fashion, the answer will likely differ each time.

Bandbox is excited to offer Heart Like a Levee on "Smoky's Song" marble vinyl, its first time ever on colored wax! This eye-catching variant arrives in November, along with a 16-page Hiss Golden Messenger zine.