On The Tallest Man on Earth’s last record, 2012’s There’s No Leaving Now, his first using full band arrangements, the effect was a kind of sterilised and muted version of his past work. The good news is that while Dark Bird Is Home similar in sound to its predecessor, it shows a better sense of balance.
This album is the fourth full-length album by Swede Kristian Matsson under the name The Tallest Man on Earth. Starting off as a raw and ragged project that consisted of little more than guitar or banjo and Matsson’s dirt-caked voice, his music has gradually become fuller and more complex.
On record, Matsson is an outsized personality. He has often been compared to Bob Dylan, but unlike old Robert Zimmerman, his lyrics are whimsical, his voice strong and resonant and his guitar-playing masterful. The kind of slightly surreal folklore conjured by Matsson in his lyrics is perfect for the simple acoustic backdrops that he uses, but when using a full band he has a tendency to go too far and drown himself out. “Timothy” on this record is a prime example, where a cluttered string and woodwind arrangement buries what could have been an otherwise decent song.
The same issue is present all through this record, particularly on the dull, overstuffed “Sagres,” and “Darkness of the Dream.” It’s not that these songs are unpleasant or even bad, it’s just that they lack anything to make them stand out in the massive glut of acoustic chamber-folk music that’s around these days.
Thankfully, the dull tracks on the record are actually outweighed by those that do work - those that show Matsson showing what made him special in the first place while still finding new dimensions to his sound.
The gospel-tinged “Singers” and the sprightly, sun-drenched “Slow Dance” both feature horn and string arrangements that complement Matsson’s songwriting without overwhelming it. The same is true of “Little Nowhere Towns” (with its fugue-like piano part one of the most immediately likeable tracks here) and the kinetic, almost jazzy “Beginners.” These songs show Matsson’s strong ear for engaging melody and a striking turn of phrase, and show that he’s capable of being more than just another guitar-toting troubadour.
Even when this record doesn’t hit, there is something so eminently likeable about The Tallest Man on Earth. Matsson comes across as so wide-eyed, so humble and so tender that it is difficult to dislike even the less impressive tracks. It’s not a great album, but it’s worth checking out because there are still so many good moments here that serve as reminders of what he’s capable of at his best.
Dark Bird Is Home is out digitally as well as on vinyl and CD on Friday May 8.