What do you do when “the new Dylan” starts to sound like the old Don Henley? If you're wise, you'll dive in and listen more deeply.
Kristian Matsson is the Tallest Man on Earth; at least, that is the moniker he has chosen since his eponymous 2006 debut EP. Enthusiastic critics have placed additional titles upon him, none the least being the ever-popular “new Dylan” tag. Certainly, his expert guitar and banjo picking style and deliberate, '30s-inflected vocal affectations on his debut full-length album Shallow Grave lent credence to the comparison. The Tallest Man On Earth built a growing following with two more sparse, straightforward albums of heart-felt and timeless folk. But with his fourth album, Dark Bird Is Home, Matsson has, if not his Newport, then his Village Green moment, adding a full band and experimenting with a variety of soundscapes, some of which are quite loud, in support of his continued dark vision.
Where earlier Tallest Man on Earth albums harkened back to a '30s recording aesthetic, Dark Bird Is Home roosts comfortably in the '80s, an era that saw a number of songwriters reaching full maturity in an atmosphere of sonic experimentation. Consider the less-bombastic tracks on Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, the whole of Tunnel of Love, or of Don Henley’s Building the Perfect Beast and The End of Innocence albums. Comparing the fiercely independent Matsson to two of the pop behemoths of the '80s should not be as jarring an association as it might at first seem. There’s something of the naïve joy of discovery in Matsson’s working within a band structure that, to my ears, parallels some of the more adventurous studio enhancements of the neon decade. More importantly, Matsson shares an underlying melancholy with those artists, one that peeks out from behind even the warmest, most upbeat moments of this album.
The tremors of insecurity haunt a romance in the album’s opener, “Fields of Our Home”, with Matsson’s familiar strumming accompanying his reflections on doubt. “So you honestly believe in me,” he sings, only to acknowledge that dreams of other options, “a second run”, keep him awake at night. A parade of “what ifs” follows as a bed of horns and organs build a crescendo to a choral climax. Matsson returns repeatedly to images of travelers and the themes of journey, usually from a perspective of becoming lost, though, in the ironically titled “Slow Dance”, he sings, “At time like these even travelers can win.” This is an upbeat, summery song that allows light to break through the darkness of the album’s dominant mood: “We slow dance in the kitchen / And I dream the days away.”
This is a brief respite, followed by the melancholy graduation-march piano that drives “Little Nowhere Towns” and Matsson’s return to feelings of floating along on a journey lacking both purpose and direction. “Caroline,” he sings like Brian Wilson adrift on his own piano bench, “Where are we going this time?” On the closing song that gives the album its name, Matsson sings of “this travel with no journey” reflectively, attempting to reassuring himself and listeners that “This is not the end,” while acknowledging the haunting influence of our past, that “Still we’re in the light of day with our ghosts within.” The song and album end with the explosiveness of revelation, echoed in the backing band’s sudden intensity: “I thought that this would last a million years / But now I need to go... oh fuck.”
The album’s centerpiece may be the song Matsson has chosen as its lead-off single, “Sagres.” Sagres is located on a promontory along the Portuguese coast, the potential inspiration for Matsson’s opening lines, “We were travelers so blind / Went to where the world did end.” As in “Fields of Our Home,” physical travel and the journey of a personal relationship are paralleled, each a symbol for the other, both clouded by uncertainty: “Was I ever part of knowing / With your hands in mine?” But the song quickly rises beyond its immediate reference points, growing, like Henley’s “End of Innocence” before it, which it strongly echoes, into an all-inclusive statement on the times themselves. “What is left to hear?” Matsson asks, and then catalogs a collection of counterpoints before concluding, “It’s just all this fucking doubt.” The breathy exasperation that he puts into the line is an exhalation of all the stress that has been built into the question itself. The world at large should sigh so deeply.
The expansion to full-band accompaniment serves the Tallest Man on Earth well. Smartly, he continues his efficient practice of including ten songs per record, possibly an ongoing nod to vinyl’s continued resurgence, resisting the temptation to expand the album length in proportion to the band. The album sequences through seamlessly, building its impressions with repeated plays. Matsson’s voice has grown in tonal quality to resemble that of '70s-era Ray Davies or the contemporary songwriter Chuck Prophet. There remains that unmusical edge that brings out the character of his emotive singing. The instrumentation is bright throughout, both reflecting Matsson’s moods and directing the listener’s attention.
If there’s a flaw to Dark Bird Is Home, it may be in the mixing: not quite muddy, maybe better described as brackish. Never the clearest enunciator to begin with, Matsson’s voice is sometimes lost amidst the instruments, making it difficult to hear his wording. For a songwriter who puts such care into his lyrics, the Tallest Man on Earth’s voice should ring clearly over the sonic landscape laid out by his band.
In all, this is a triumphant and very adult summer record. Its joys are tinged with sadness, its brightness is enhanced by the twilight of its boundaries. With Dark Bird Is Home, the Tallest Man on Earth has reached a new pinnacle.