Photo courtesy of Dead Oceans records
Highly renowned Swedish folk singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson, better known as The Tallest Man on Earth, just released his eagerly awaited fourth LP Dark Bird is Home with Dead Oceans Records, an independent Austin, TX record label known for hosting a variety of alternative music genres from prog rock to Americana. The album marks a transition in Matsson’s personal life—a divorce from his wife, singer-songwriter Amanda Bergman of Idiot Wind—and most of the LP’s subject matter stems from their separation. The instrumental tracks on the album are mostly similar, “wall of sound” pieces blending his original style of finger-picked folk guitar with a new full band sound including glistening synthesizers, softly driving drums, and even Matsson’s own clarinet playing.
Most of the tracks on Dark Bird were recorded in Sweden, but he added some saxophone and viola parts from Mike Lewis and Mike Noyce respectively, both of Bon Iver, with both of the musicians joining him on tour. Though Matsson successfully pushes himself beyond the boundaries of his old sound, and pulls it off well, he sacrifices the ingenuity that marked his past guitar playing for sleekly produced, homogenous tunes.
Matsson’s music has been compared to Bob Dylan’s and Pete Seeger’s in the past, but on Dark Bird he often sounds more like Bruce Springsteen, especially on tracks like “Darkness of the Dream” and “Seventeen.” He emulates Springsteen’s use of the “wall of sound” aesthetic, originally developed by producer Phil Spector in the 1960s for use in classic soul recordings. This production creates a dense network of sound where acoustic instrumentation is mixed with electric, large numbers of string players are added, and recording is done in a cavernous space that allows a lot of echo.
The technique creates an ambient, choral sound that lies just beneath the sound of the lead instruments and vocals, giving the music an almost angelic quality. Matsson and sound engineer BJ Burton mostly accomplished this by recording much of the music in barns (a common practice for folk bands trying to capture a more reverberated sound), making use of Noyce’s viola, utilizing random percussive instruments, and using synthesizers as ambient space-fillers. They pull off the sound well, and add their own jangling, hopeful twist to the famous recording method.
On the first track, “Fields of Our Home,” Noyce’s viola, along with crescendoing and decrescendoing synthesizers, are the only other instruments present besides Matsson’s guitar and voice. They gently swoop in and out of the listener’s perception, softly hinting at the change of sound The Tallest Man on Earth is about to undergo. The song introduces themes prevalent throughout the rest of the album, like adversity through self-doubt, and the cruel necessity of failure and sadness to achieve personal growth (“What if you’d never been through lies/Young sorrow, wailing loans”), which seem to be lessons he learned from his recent divorce. “Fields of Our Home” is one of my favorite tracks on the album, and contains an air of melancholy joy and quiet optimism.
My two favorite songs are definitely “Timothy” and “Dark Bird is Home.” “Timothy” kicks off with a badass clarinet riff that almost sounds like a distorted guitar, giving way to furiously strummed guitars and subtle fluctuating synths. “Dark Bird is Home” starts off with Tallest Man on Earth’s classic folk setup: just him and his guitar, joyfully riffing as his voice rises with each verse. It is in this song, after a full album of nostalgic depression, that Matsson finally sings, “And suddenly the day gets you down, but it’s not the end/No this is fine,” coming to terms with his divorce and realizing that life goes on, with or without any particular person.
The only flaws on Dark Bird is Home are the similarity of the songs’ instrumentation and overall sound, which, combined with the repression of Matsson’s signature finger picking style, make the album less interesting than it could have been. The songs speak of revelations, but do not provide much inspiration. That said, Tallest Man on Earth’s new album is a collection of elegant songs that are definitely worth a listen.