The Tallest Man on Earth gets likened to Bob Dylan all the time by listeners who use the name to signify little more than nasal vocals and acoustic guitar. With three minimal albums to his name, Kristian Matsson finally reaches beyond that beloved guitar on Dark Bird Is Home. Halfway through opener “Fields of Our Home”, he sticks his fingers into the meddling mess of a full band and looks back up with a stoic gaze, proud. He’s strong enough to hold it all together himself.
Faced with family problems, Matsson turned to songwriting to work out his confusion, guilt, and sadness. The product of that process is one of internal resolve. “Darkness of the Dream” is a bright, melodic number that’s one of many to greet the morning sky, even when it’s raining. Matsson is no stranger to confronting sorrow, but expressing it with violin, mandolin, and castanet is new turf for him. On “Sagres”, he breathes air into every instrument, fleshing out sharp, heartfelt production with the expansive chest of toys. The result is nothing short of magic. “Suddenly the day gets you down/ But this is not the end/ No, this is fine,” he sings, inserting wondering coos in the vein of Paul Simon during the bridge. “It’s just all this fucking doubt.” As heavy as it leans on him, this is a song of restoration while shedding skin. The Tallest Man on Earth is straightening his spine with lungs full of fresh air.
There’s no fire burning under the bottom of the songs here to keep them running in mid-air the way “Wild Hunt” or “Shallow Grave” do. Matsson’s trademark move of making the title track a hearty chase fell flat on 2012’s There’s No Leaving Now. Thankfully, he has come back to his senses. “Dark Bird Is Home” lures you in not with a boot-stomping rhythm, but honest storytelling that grows from bare guitar into a lush, flowery, full-band adieu.
Live, Matsson rides on pure charm, hunching over his guitar while he paces the stage, snarling his lines through a smile. Lines like “We slow dance in the kitchen/ And I dream the days away” (from “Slow Dance”) sparkle not from his delivery, but from the explosions of horns around them. The focus has shifted. The production on Dark Bird doesn’t take the reins; it’s just a new box of crayons that fill in his creation, swapping the old colors of his trade for the pale blue of gospel choirs and the sunshine orange of trumpets. Even the relatively bare “Timothy” catches rays with quiet woodwinds and Irish strings.
Lyrically, Dark Bird Is Home is a straightforward pairing of opposites: home versus traveling, light versus darkness. Miles separate the chipper acoustic strut of “Beginners” from the cross-country wind of “Seventeen”, but they both feel welcome in the album’s tracklist. This is The Tallest Man on Earth’s darkest album yet, but it pushes forward with the unbending optimism found in backyard barns and modest countrysides. Sweden’s hometown hero has grown up. His innocent, childish charm didn’t leave; he’s battered and burned, but he’s smiling nonetheless, pushing himself to triple the melodies with buckets of instruments for a larger sound that still beats with the same heart.
Essential Tracks: “Sagres”, “Dark Bird Is Home”, and “Slow Dance”