From its inception in a Walden Pond-esque corner of the rural South in the wake of the U.S. financial crisis, to the sudden destruction of the initial CD pressing of the album during the London riots in 2011, it was almost as if Hiss Golden Messenger’s Bad Debt was inherently drawn to catastrophe, resulting in an inextricable link with the bleak sociological forces that both inspired and erased it. But to consider Bad Debt exclusively through a historical lens would be to miss a lot of the point. This is a heartrendingly personal work, whispers of love and fear and aching uncertainty to Taylor’s family, their future, and the looming, perhaps benevolent, embrace of the hereafter.
Taylor grapples with all sorts of slippery metaphysical questions throughout the album: mortality, faith, reckoning, and even his insidious desire to court death. But what makes Bad Debt so disarming is how he approaches all this material; that is, with such a natural, un-self-conscious ease that it seems to just tumble out of the most profound crooks and crossings of his being. It’s a rare poet that can conjure a deep, moving voice that nonetheless sounds effortless, like a heretofore hidden universal truth spoken without fuss or affectation. When Taylor sings, “No master, I am free,” on “O Little Light,” the tender defiance feels sacred and numinous, like it weren’t just his own imperative, but all of humanity’s. And that’s the lovely paradox that rises out of Bad Debt: For songs recorded in such intimate isolation, many of them feel like plaintive jeremiads and wracked monologues that we can all recognize.
The question concerning Bad Debt, now being given a full-fledged reissue release, is the degree of its religiosity. How can a self-proclaimed skeptic be so seemingly preoccupied with a patriarchal God? The answer is probably what makes HGM and Bad Debt so unique. The combination of a fragile, almost fatalistic soul-searching and a sincere awe for the Earth and sky give Taylor’s music a romantic bent. Resigned to unknowing, he instead indulges devotional reveries and fantasy pilgrimages, as in “Jesus Shot Me in the Head,” where he’s “gone to see the king” at the “pearly white gates.” The lyrics read prosaic on paper, but he has a way of imbuing them with a hypnotic naturalism, as if he were the first and only one to ever whisper to heaven. It’s one thing to write them, but to sing them and mean it is another, and Taylor accrues a kind of spiritual street cred through the course of Bad Debt: In the monastic simplicity of his voice, guitar, and the ubiquitous tape hiss, he carves a sort of woodcut self-portrait, full of scars and fevered courage.
Bad Debt loses some of its bones-of-the-earth authenticity as it progresses; the later tracks are more narrative and literal, and therefore lack the everyman lucidity off which most of the album thrives. The justification for this release, however, is evident from the first few seconds of opener “Balthazar’s Song”: Taylor’s trembling, private croon, wreathed in demo-tape crackle, haunting in its equanimity before life and death, meting out the merits of each with hushed resolve.
For an album with a creation tale so bound up in contemporary history, Bad Debt is utterly ageless, like a surviving relic from time immemorial. You could liken Taylor’s work here to a more understated Bill Callahan or Tallest Man on Earth, but Bad Debt is so stripped down and minimal, it doesn’t invite easy comparisons. Aside from the album’s asceticism, it’s those bibilical, eternally human themes of suffering and transfiguration that make the songs incomparable and anachronistic. Without even a whiff of contrivance or dogma, Taylor manages to stage his own reenactment of the fall, the desolate road to redemption, and the final reconciliation with God. It’s the unmistakable voice of that American archetype, the estranged believer, lonesome and full-hearted with something that’s not quite faith, but isn’t far off.