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J. Tillman

Year in the Kingdom

(Western Vinyl; US: 8 Sep 2009; UK: 14 Sep 2009)

Yes, Josh Tillman is the drummer for Fleet Foxes. Have we gotten that out of the way? Good. Because he has been putting out his own quiet records at a pretty good clip for a while now, and they’re not only great, but they’re the stark shadow to the honeyed light his “other” band puts out. And his sixth such record, Year in the Kingdom, may be his most stark collection yet.


More so than any of his other records—including last year’s excellent Vacilando Territory Blues—there is a feeling of isolation here. But that isolation isn’t nearly as depressive as this hushed sound might initially imply. That titular year feels like Tillman spent it at some huge reunion—of friends, family, lovers old and new—maybe out in a cabin in the mountains somewhere.  And while they all hashed everything out, he holed up in the room upstairs, figuring things out for himself the only way he knows how. It’s an album of admission, acceptance, and moving on. But there’s also a feeling that Tillman knows not just what he’s moving on from, but where he’s going to.


When he sings that title line, “I spent a year in the kingdom”, he feels genuinely grateful for having gone though, well, what seems like a lot. Lyrically, these songs rarely come right out and say things, instead creating a shadowy landscape upon which Tillman lays honest emotions. The dulcimer hammers over guitar on “Crosswinds”, like little breaks in the clouds. And Tillman layers backing vocals into a haunting fog, but he sets it up only to break it. “We’ll find each other where we promised”, he assures someone. And we never know quite where that place is, whether or not it’s outside of that kingdom he was singing about just a song before. But there’s relief in his papery voice. Even as he’s uncertain this meeting will happen, he holds tight to his hope and presses on.


But Year in the Kingdom isn’t merely filled out by vague mysticism. A feeling of death floats around the record, and Tillman works to come to grips with it in these songs. It’s not always death either, but the ending that comes with leaving a past behind. And the incomplete way he tackles the feelings left in that wake hint beautifully at their complexity. “Now the living are alive”, he sings on “Howling Light”, focusing instead on the resilience of going on, rather than miring himself in a moment of loss.


And even when he seems to get confessional here—there are songs called “Though I Have Wronged You” and “There’s No Good In Me”—he holds onto that subtle touch and doesn’t resort to cloying or unconvincing self-condemnation. “There Is No Good In Me” actually turns out to be the most haunting track on the album. Though it leads with the sinister admission “I have a taste for blood”, it becomes a threadbare and heartbreaking rumination on family history, and the burden of bloodlines.


Ironically, in channeling a lineage, Tillman sounds at his most solitary. But though he basically recorded this album alone, he swells these songs up enough to show that his sound is bigger than himself. The handclaps and quaking layers of vocals as not only beautifully placed in these delicate songs, but they show Tillman always reaching out to us, inviting us into a hope big enough to share, even as the sound that conveys it can be so small.


As Year in the Kingdom moves along, beautifully and without a misstep, you can imagine that crowded reunion downstairs from Tillman. You can feel them start to notice the music—first a few of them hear his songs through the ceiling, then a few more. And before you know it, their din has died down and they’re all just standing there listening to Tillman play. They know the sound is lonesome, but they feel the pressing hope in the spaces between chords, in the warbling grit of his voice. And even if they don’t know exactly what he’s saying, they know just what he’s talking about.

Rating:

Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.


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4 Feb 2009
A serious, small album from a singer-songwriter we should probably be paying more attention to.
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