The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

REVIEW: The Tallest Man On Earth – ‘Dark Bird Is Home’ (Dead Oceans)

Front cover of 'Dark Bird Is Home'

Front cover of ‘Dark Bird Is Home’

by Ed Biggs

Even at a time when folk is as prominent in the wider pop scene as it’s been at any point since its heyday, Kristian Matsson (a.k.a. The Tallest Man On Earth) still manages to seem like a man out of time, of a different era altogether. It’s not only that he never resorts to the cynical stomps, handclaps and “whoa-ohs” of his contemporaries who cynically use folk as a vehicle to fill stadiums (Mumford & Sons; The Lumineers; The Civil Wars), but that he seems to intuitively grasp the dynamics of the genre that you’d swear he was an original folk pioneer rather than a revivalist. After three albums of beautifully poised, almost entirely acoustic work, new album Dark Bird Is Home sees Matsson tentatively embrace new instruments and experiment briefly with a full band sound, which he does so largely successfully and without sacrificing the intimate ambience of his previous work.

As Pitchfork’s Jeremy Larson pointed out in his review, Matsson’s outlook is borne of solitude, not loneliness. His thought processes seem totally uninfected by modernism, which allows his sense of wanderlust to shine through on beautiful vignettes like ‘Little Nowhere Towns’, which exchanges his guitar for an intricate piano figure, and the cute ‘Beginners’ with its piano tinkles in the chorus. The likes of ‘Fields Of Our Home’ is a more typically TTMOE moment, dealing with displacement and homesickness with our narrator dealing in self-doubt – “what if you’d never seen through that”. Matsson deals in lyrics that would seem well-worn and trite in the hands of others (“and suddenly the day gets you down… …and still we’re in laughing memory” on the title track) but seem genuinely revelatory in his.

There’s a number of moments that indicate artistic progression, some of which work fantastically well and some of which suffer from minor flaws.  Featuring big kick drums and a wall of piano, ‘Darkness Of The Dream’ works less well. Perhaps it’s a genuine stab at mainstream acceptance, going for the Mumfords / Of Monsters And Men sound, but ultimately Matsson’s sense of personality is buried by the avalanche of production. ‘Timothy’ does a much better job of this, happily. His style is certainly much more affecting with a minimalist musical backdrop, but there are a few moments that tell us that Matsson can successfully access a fuller sound without diluting the essence of what made the first Tallest Man On Earth albums so special. The cinematic folk ambience of ‘Sagres’ is a special moment, with what sounds like a fiddle or a hurdy-gurdy propelling the track and sounds like The War On Drugs if Adam Granduciel used an acoustic guitar instead of an electric one. The spectacular closing title track is the highlight of the record, getting inside a vulnerable character’s mind with a delicate acoustic introduction before finally exploding into a glorious, widescreen finale in the final minute of its five-minute running time.

A lot of the musical forms that Matsson uses are absolutely deathless and comfortingly familiar to any true folk fan, but the tapestries he weaves with his flourishes of acoustic guitar and aching, world-weary yet defiantly optimistic voice are so sincere that any criticisms to do with originality are rendered irrelevant. While he may wrestle with the occasional opaque metaphor (“but we’re only gone like singers like singers are ‘till springtime” – ‘Singers’) Matsson is an exceptional storyteller of the old-fashioned kind. Dark Bird Is Home is in some ways his weakest album to date – a couple of songs like ‘Seventeen’ and ‘Slow Dance’ feel like they’re merely on autopilot – but Matsson remains a conduit for the true sounds of folk in a field populated largely by fakers. (7/10)

Listen to Dark Bird Is Home here!


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