Review: The Tallest Man on Earth “Dark Bird is Home”
We’ve all done it. Everybody has that one go-to in every area of their life that they use for consistent, comforting pleasure that’s perfectly the same forever. Maybe it’s that pair of jeans that goes with everything. It might be Mitchell’s salted caramel ice cream. Or it could be the movie you put on at 2 am every Saturday night when you get home from the bar. Whatever it is, we all have it, especially when it comes to the music we listen to. And that’s where the Tallest Man on Earth and his new album, Dark Bird is Home, come in.
For the last 10 years, Kristian Matsson has created and honed a brand of lyrically brief, emotionally dense, and musically restrained folk that’s undeniably his own. That presumably-patented gravel-coated voice playing out over little more than his guitar has become his calling card … and the point at which many fans have left him. He hasn’t mixed up his approach very much since his first self-titled EP, and for a lot of critics and listeners, Matsson’s work has fallen prey to the – I’m sure infuriating to artists – cliché of sounding too much like yourself for too long. Thankfully, Dark Bird is Home is a breath of fresh air that adds a ton of new styles, approaches, instruments, and sounds to TMoE’s repertoire, all while reminding me why he has more than one song that makes me cry every time I listen to it.
The added bits come in the form of brass sections, choral backing, and fully orchestrated strings. They don’t take away from Matsson’s power to astonish, and in fact they enhance his skills in some really exciting ways. For all that growth and expansion, it seems almost accidental that Dark Bird is Home has the smallest scope of any TMoE release. Matsson is no longer claiming to be the mythic figure his stage name implies anymore, nor does he claim to have his eye on the Spanish throne anymore. Instead, he’s just wondering about life and getting older and wandering through, as he puts it, “Little Nowhere Towns.” The inverse of using more to talk about less thematically is a welcome evolution, and it’s fascinating to see him transition from the hyperbolic to the hyper-personal.
“Fields of our Home” is both a perfect opening for the record, and an example of Matsson’s new maximalist approach to minimalism. For three-and-a-half minutes the song is everything I expect from him: echoey vocals over a backing of strummed, simple chords. Lyrically, he wonders what happens when we forget where we came from – whether literally, emotionally, or romantically. The twist happens right after he worries “What if we never see through that/ to the fields of our home?” which is accompanied by a giant swell of strings that’s so unexpected I jumped in surprise the first time I was listening. Fortunately, it’s not a rudderless wall of sound, and doesn’t overwhelm the song’s power. Instead, it enhances the moves he’s making with his words. The sonic shift comes as he’s making the point to never forget said fields of said homes, and the upswing in the music’s character matches the intensity of the line’s passion perfectly.
The new wrinkles, instruments, and backing vocals don’t distract from Matsson’s power to impress, nor do they try to bully you into feeling the feels you knew you were going to feel when listening to his stuff. Now, instead of the sonic minimalism that accompanies classics like “Thrown Right at Me,” your feelings are matched, and supported, by the woodwinds and extra flourishes. It’s a move not many artists could pull off without getting lost in their own extra embellishments. With this new emphasis on smaller-scale concerns and more varied instrumentation, Dark Bird is Home presents some new takes on what a TMoE song can be. We get a piano ballad (“Little Nowhere Towns”), a song that could be from his early days (“Timothy”), and even a finger-picking old school folk jam about wide-eyed love (“Beginners”). It all adds up to a varied and intriguing record, if not his greatest. Call me an old fashioned gal, but I still can’t get past my selfish desire to hear Matsson do what he does best: play straight ahead folk better than almost anybody.
My egotistical shortcomings aside, Matsson uses his new sound(s) to highlight different aspects of his music that he previously couldn’t. The small sigh you can still clearly hear above everything during a lull in “Singers” is all the more meaningful because it’s cutting through the noise to make itself heard. On an older track, the tiny exhalation would’ve had little overall power: when everything comes across clearly, it’s impossible to make a single breath impactful. Here, that sigh ringing through is a statement, an intentional moment. Similarly, when Matsson breaks down on “Sagres” and admits that “it’s just all this fucking doubt” that keeps him from being sure of his life choices, all other sound is pushed aside for the moment. Because so much of this record is about what he’s added, when Matsson strips away everything except his voice in such key moments, it’s a stark contrast that makes them stand out. In an inside-out way he’s using more to highlight less, and pointing out that small, personal moments are still what are most important to him.
Dark Bird is Home represents a step in a new direction for Matsson to achieve emotional pathos, and I can’t but compare it to another of my early 2015 favorites: Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell. While Stevens strips everything back to get at the raw emotion of his new songs’ lyrics, Matsson uses what he’s adding to illustrate their power. The paradoxical relationship these two awesome songwriters’ newest work has with each other only further proves how solid each record is on its own. Stevens is coming off the massive scope that was The Age of Adz, and returned to the almost nonexistent production of his earlier work, while Matsson is working in the opposite direction with just as much success. If you haven’t tried it yet, listen to Carrie & Lowell and Dark Bird is Home. It’s a great reminder of just how on top of their games two of today’s best songwriters are.
Until recently, many fans – myself included – shared the belief that Matsson had one more shot at trying something different. One more chance to prove that he could do something other than keep sounding the same forever until we all stopped caring. It’s a crap situation for listeners to put somebody in, but it’s what happens when you’re too good at a very specific sound. That’s why I’m glad this record is something new, something different. Is Dark Bird is Home the best album Matsson’s ever released? Well, no, not by a long shot. But Shallow Grave and The Wild Hunt are always going to be pretty peerless. What’s worth checking out here is that Kristian Matsson has managed to rediscover the form that led to those earlier classics. While latter-day Death Cab for Cutie and Belle and Sebastian are still good but nowhere close to the great they used to be, The Tallest Man on Earth has avoided the curse of sounding too much like himself in a way that’s refreshing, interesting, but – most importantly – still heart-rippingly beautiful.
Dark Bird is Home is out on May 12th via Dead Oceans.