By Jason Shoff
In this endless cycle of constant nostalgia that seems to be fueling our culture nowadays (admit it: you’re reading this while eating a big ol’ bowl of French Toast Crunch and counting down the days until “Fuller House” appears on Netflix), it seems a musical fad from the past rears its head every few years to once again become a part of the musical landscape. In 2013, the inescapable pop hits of “Get Lucky,” “Happy” and “Blurred Lines” brought 70s disco and R&B back into the spotlight; last year it seemed like everyone from major pop acts like Taylor Swift and songwriters like Ryan Adams to indie bands such as Bleachers, Future Islands and War on Drugs were milking the sounds of late ‘70s and ‘80s pop rock for all it was worth. And now it appears that 2015 will go down as the year of the singer/songwriter. No matter what websites and magazines I’ve been reading, and no matter what playlists I’ve been listening to lately, the sounds of the early ‘70s balladeer seem to be everywhere: from the McCartney/Nilsson-esque piano pop of Tobias Jesso Jr. and the Motown sounds of Matthew E. White to the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink schmaltz of Father John Misty and the blues-by-way-of Tumbleweed Connection rock of Hozier, the sound is inescapable. And that’s not even counting the plethora of young songwriters who are taking the sounds and melodies of folk and putting enough pop in them to appeal to One Direction fans who are growing up and are beginning to expand their musical horizons.
What all this means is that now just might be the perfect time for a songwriter like The Tallest Man on Earth to break through to the masses. The stage name of one Kristian Matsson of Dalarna, Sweden, he’s built a strong reputation in indie music circles for nearly a decade, playing the kind of sparse and delicate yet melodic folk that critics love giving the “next Dylan” tag to (though there are definitely similarities in both sound and voice). It’s the kind of music that feels for all the world like it was recorded alone in a wooden shack in the woods in the middle of nowhere in the early/mid ‘60s, then brought back from obscurity by a reissue label like Light in the Attic or Numero Group (which makes sense, seeing as he self-records his albums and plays most everything himself). However, on his latest album, Dark Bird is Home, he begins to do what every solo folkie or singer-songwriter tends to do after a few albums: expand their sound by adding more instrumentation.
Now when a songwriter “pulls an Iron and Wine,” as I like to call it, he or she can go in one of two directions: They can either make their album sound like they’ve added every single instrument they’ve stumbled upon in the studio, in turn creating songs that sound so extravagant and grandiose that they would make even Phil Spector blush; or they can add just enough orchestration and accompaniment to color the arrangements where necessary. Thankfully, Matsson opts for the latter, and even then he still tends to play most everything himself (though he does bring in others in when necessary). The very first song, “Fields of Our Home,” is a perfect example of this tasteful use of instrumentation: what begins as a solo acoustic strum soon has a layers of keyboards joining in on the proceedings, sounding like wind blowing in the distance, before a tasteful layer of distant backing voices brings the song to a fitting conclusion. It also serves as a great opening track, as it’s the perfect way to ease long-time Tallest Man listeners into the kick-up-some-dirt full-band gallop of “Darkness of Our Dream.” But don’t panic: this isn’t Tallest Man Revisited; with its country western vocals and pedal steel, it’s just upbeat enough to inject some energy into the album and would make for a great single. This peppiness pops up again in the clarinet stomp of the Arcade Fire-esque “Timothy,” the flute-injected shuffle of “Slow Dance,” which could be a long lost George Harrison outtake (not to mention that his voice has become a nice blend of both George and Bob), and “Sagres,” which is probably what Born to Run would probably have sounded like if Bruce Springsteen was a low-fi artist who recorded all of his albums in his basement. In each case, these tunes serve to a nice create a nice counter balance to the mellower fare and somber moods that fill rest of the album.
And speaking of which, much has been made in the press before the album’s release about how this is Matsson’s most personal album to date, as he dealt with both the loss of a family member and the end of a long-term relationship before its recording. But for the most part, rather than being straightforward about these matters, his lyrics continue to be in the vague and ambiguous style of his past releases, relying on imagery and wordplay to get his message across. The whimsical Petty-esque acoustic “Beginners” and “Little Nowhere Town,” a jaunty piano ballad of heartbreak that sounds like it could have been plucked from an early Dylan demo tape in both its melody and lyrics, are perfect examples of this. But there are a few moments when the lyrics can be impenetrable; “Singers,” for example, is a nice little fingerpickin’ ditty that would have an incredibly catchy chorus if it weren’t driven by the head-scratching refrain of “We're only gone like singers are till springtime, let them out, if they should let them out”. But when his lyrics hit, they hit HARD: when all the instruments drop out in “Sagres” and he whispers “It’s just the fucking hurt,” it hits you right in the gut. And the epic, showstopping, heart-string pulling title track just might be his best song yet, a lament of lost love that, even through its roaring crescendo and tale of sadness, still offers a glimmer of hope: “Suddenly the day gets you down, but this is not the end. No, this is fine…but now I need to go.”
With Dark Bird is Home, Matsson has pulled off a pretty cool trick: it sounds like a natural continuation of his solo work, which will surely please long-time fans, yet the added orchestration and pep can serve as a great entry point to the curious and uninitiated. If you’re a fan of great songwriting, expertly-crafted folk that’s perfect for a cloudy day, or are currently looking for some music to listen to while you wait patiently for the Bon Iver release, then you can absolutely do no wrong with The Tallest Man.