Review Summary: Through a rainbow darkly.
What do I want from a Tallest Man on Earth record? It’s a question I’ve had difficulty answering since Kristian Matsson’s fourth LP Dark Bird Is Home
leaked what seems like ages ago and Matsson revealed himself as the world’s most melancholy soft rock apologist. There’s no doubt that, all things considered, Dark Bird Is Home
is Matsson’s most coherent vision yet, a fully realized monument to a crumbling marriage and a future that’s lyric sheet reads far more uncertain than the lush production soundtracking it. As far as thematic content goes, the break-up of a marriage (along with the loss of a close family member – when it rains, it pours) is a deep, dark well to draw from, and Matsson rarely disappoints. His ability to convey a feeling, a missed opportunity, is in typically adroit form here; when he sings, “guess we’re always in destruction of the little things we’d learn,” on “Singers,” the regret threatens to tear his voice apart. That he follows it up with the song’s inscrutable lines “but we’re only gone like singers are till springtime / let them out if they should let them out” is a classic Matsson diversion. And why not? Matsson has always had a talent for coating the universal in shadows and half-truths. Yet the more he opens up, however indirectly, the more Dark Bird Is Home
is content to color his emotions through an opaque prism of expansive arrangements that belie a broken heart.
That Matsson deserves this kind of indulgence is undeniable. His songwriting has always been more creative and multifaceted than the “Swedish Dylan” comparisons that got foisted on him with his debut Shallow Grave
and 2010’s The Wild Hunt
, an easy moniker to go along with that unique, fascinating warble of his and an impressive fingerpicking style. Starting the record off with “Fields of Our Home” feels like Matsson gently leading us off the beach and into shallow water, starting off as these albums tend to do before bringing in a gorgeously multitracked chorus and a sonorous swell of brass and strings. “Darkness of the Dream,” meanwhile, wastes little time in kicking into its Scandinavian Springsteen groove, all propulsive drums (!) and an oddly major-key lift in its melody. Better is album highlight “Slow Dance,” which tempers Matsson’s fascination with MOR touchstones with a breezy twang, and when he sings “I guess my rhythm grew / through my darker time,” you can’t help but smile even as that ridiculous little trumpet fill bubbles its way through.
A song like “Sagres,” though the ostensible centerpiece of the record – certainly one of its most lyrically compelling, anyways – nevertheless feels stuffed to the point of breaking, a chintzy synth line, castanets, and that glossy guitar shimmer, a lavishness that threatens to overwhelm the song’s heartbreaking message. At least until the music drops out, and Matsson wails, “it’s not the reasoning with shadows that are gone / it’s not me knowing I’m yet to see the fire / it’s just all this fu
cking doubt,” and it feels like he can barely get out the words. That’s the kind of grit I want to see more of, but Dark Bird Is Home
is the work of an expert at dressing up flaws with a rich sheen. I don’t know if it’s the retreat into the familiar that is so appealing, but the spartan “Little Nowhere Towns” stands out, transforming something so insubstantial into a gentle acoustic portrait devoid of bells and whistles, save for Matsson’s elegantly simple piano. “Beginners” does the same for the guitar and a plink of keyboard, and while its tone is that of a merry jaunt, its lyrics hit in the gut: “I could just leave tomorrow, but baby, letting you go / all these songs would be just of sorrow.” In its wide-eyed optimism you can hear Matsson still justifying the potential of this relationship; mostly, it seems, to himself.
I think that’s why I love that sequence at the end of the record the best, when “Beginners” fades into the weary realism of “Seventeen” and Matsson is reduced to begging, “won’t you come in for a while?” before the title track places us in the very real, very dirty present. It’s the album’s best distillation of Matsson’s past and present, properly bookending the record with a similar format to “Fields of Our Home” and a fitting lyrical catharsis to an album’s worth of suffering. “No, this is not the end / and no final tears that will leave to show / I thought that this would last for a million years / but now I need to go,” Matsson sings, before that final, exasperated “oh fu
ck” heralds a surge of warm, cleansing instrumentation to wipe away his sins and memories. It’s a beautiful moment on a record full of them, yet it’s also an understated and complementary effect rather than one that drowns. That’s a balance Dark Bird Is Home
doesn’t always navigate successfully, too often missing that feeling of everything in its right place with songwriting choices that clutter more often than not. Perhaps this is the only way Dark Bird Is Home
could exist, messy and a little lost within itself. In that respect, it’s the perfect encapsulation of a particularly troubled time in its creator’s life.