Musician Michael Taylor has a "complicated faith," the Washington Post says. He can slide chords and sing about quests for meaning. Just don’t pin him down.
And the Post's profile feature on him doesn't try. It collects a lot on the music, family and lifestyle of the indie artist who calls himself Hiss Golden Messenger. His spiritual beliefs, not so much, even though the newspaper headline it "Complicated faith: Searching for God in the songs of Hiss Golden Messenger."
The story reads rather fast despite its 1,600 words. It tells of Taylor's journey from a Southern California upbringing to his current home in Durham, N.C. -- a musical trek from punk to folk-rock to "still-water folk" (a term, however, that isn't defined).
Richards praises Taylor's new album, Lateness of Dancers, though he has trouble pinning down its virtues: "The songs on it feel both ambiguously sweet and deeply personal, but ultimately confident in their own vagueness."
Most of Taylor’s music inhabits this highly charged middle space, the chasm between faith and doubt. His strongest melodies simultaneously suggest jubilation and despair, comfort and restlessness. His singing is cool and sharp, somewhere between James Taylor’s serenity and Bob Dylan’s agita. He never sounds stuck in the middle. He sounds as if he’s conquering the middle.
“This combination of things that I do — the lyrical content, the rhythmic content,” he says, “it’s this weird alchemy that belongs to me.”
Concurrently, his search for God has been every bit as unique. But maybe not as successful.
Get used to words like those in this piece: "middle," "muddle," "vagueness," "ambiguity." Taylor praises the search, but not necessarily a destination. He's more direct on what he doesn't want. More on that later, though you can probably guess.
The very music mirrors Taylor's ambiguity, Richards reports:
He silences the stereo, grabs his guitar and starts twisting the tuning pegs. B drops to A. G drops to E. This maneuver allows him to form chords that muddle the distinction between minor and major, the keys that signal sadness and sunshine, respectively.
“So the weight of the emotion rests solely on the vocal melody and the lyrical content,” Taylor says.
This would have been a good time to ask, "What kind of content do you want to put in your lyrics?" Taylor's songs are vague and ambiguous, remember?
But the Post doesn't press for that. Instead, it lets Taylor off with:
I’m not trying to tell people what to think about this stuff — or even what I think about this stuff. I intentionally construct the lyrics and the narratives in the songs to withhold all of that information.”
Richards does put a little effort into getting the man to man up on his faith. Taylor says he's read the Bible and theology books, and got a master's degree in folklore from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He still calls himself a skeptic even on the existence of God, let alone which path to follow. But he's just pretty sure -- surprise, surprise -- it isn't conservative Christianity or Islam.
Yet his image of those faiths is as vague as his own chords and lyrics:
I was baptized Episcopalian, but my parents had a hard time with church, so I don’t really have that in my background,” Taylor says. “But I’m not saying I don’t believe in God. I’m skeptical. And the people telling me God does exist don’t seem like reputable sources. I see God being used as a tool for violence and mayhem. Whether it’s the North Carolina GOP totally dismantling social services for low-income people and the elderly, or ISIS causing chaos, or Israel and Palestine killing each other over their prophets.”
He sets down his guitar.
“It never seems like American Christians are ever following the teachings of Jesus as I understand them to be — and they’re not that difficult to understand. I don’t want to be dissuaded from this idea of belief by people who claim to be experts on Jesus Christ. But to me, they seem ignorant. So I’m trying to find this other way to faith. But I’m looking for a back door. All the common entrances seem incorrect.”
So Taylor's image of religion is set by North Carolina's Republicans and by wars on the far side of the Mediterranean. Exactly how much work did he put into those theological studies?
Could Taylor perhaps have found other branches of Christianity more to his liking? Like Methodists or Mennonites? Or the denomination into which he was baptized -- a denomination famous for its soup kitchens and for advocating government aid to the poor?
Those would have been good reporter questions. And they wouldn't have to be confrontational. Just gently probing. Might've gotten good answers.
When he gets on Jesus, Taylor gets uncomplicated for once:
I don’t think the teachings of Jesus, at their core, are all that complex. My understanding is that he taught love, and kindness, and generosity. And that’s why he’s such a hero to so many people.”
You can see why this indie artist in Durham, N.C., got the attention of a megalopolitan newspaper like the Washington Post. No set of beliefs. No code of conduct. No commitment to a cause or a group. Just sliding chords and vague, "complicated" faith.