Sound — 7
Kristian Matsson, known by his stage name The Tallest Man On Earth, made for a nice juxtaposition to the current generation of folk music. Whereas folk peers like Justin Vernon and Damien Rice reside on the soft, lulling side of the spectrum, Matsson draws heavy influence from the pioneering folk sound of Bob Dylan - from his unkempt vocal style to stressing the importance of capturing the organic factor, even opting to record his songs in old barns. With his first two albums, "Shallow Grave" and "The Wild Hunt," channeling the bare-boned, no-electric-instruments-allowed mentality of Dylan, Matsson made waves and earned critical acclaim early into his career. However, like Dylan, Matsson would eventually expand his minimal acoustic instrumentation to include electric instruments, but the resulting album, 2012's "There's No Leaving Now," would conjure mixed reception, with the main gripe being the added instrumentation sullying the organic appeal of Matsson's previous works - as they say, history repeats itself.
Now on his fourth album, "Dark Bird Is Home," Matsson doesn't seem fazed by those gripes towards his previous album. Continuing in the direction towards expansive arrangements, Matsson has all but entirely abandoned the practice of acoustic minimalism. His acoustic guitar is still the primary engine of most songs, but more focus is stressed on the stocked support layers. The biggest and most beneficial of additions is an elaboration on choral elements - from the harmonies and choir chants in "Fields of Our Home," to the backing female vocals in the piano ballad of "Little Nowhere Towns" and "Beginners" - which successfully balance between beefing up the size of songs while still keeping the down-to-earth folksiness intact.
That concern of keeping the down-to-earth folksiness of The Tallest Man On Earth intact is still a struggle in the light of Matsson's more aspirational ensembles. Though he still opts to outfit his skeletal guitar tracks with lo-fi grit, the addition of glimmering synth layers to spruce up his songs and avoid the ditch of monotony that comes with minimalism ends up clashing with that lo-fi folk aesthetic (see "Fields of Our Home" and "Singers"). Matsson's bigger instrumental recipes hit the bullseye when he's not wishy-washy about it - the pop-minded "Timothy" succeeds in this, but the best example of this growth is seen in the titular closing song. Starting off as a humble and bare-boned folk tune that calls back to Matsson's earlier era (the only moment on the album that does this), it builds up to a rich and full-bodied arrangement at the end, properly highlighting Matsson's stylistic change in a dynamic, five-minute microcosm.
Lyrics — 8
Matsson's theme throughout "Dark Bird Is Home" is about returning to the blissful embrace of security, the eventual stagnancy of such, and the importance of accepting its inevitable end and moving forward. This manifests in the concept of Matsson returning to his small and secluded hometown, where his fear of bigger things to come in result of his success (which is established in "Darkness of The Dream") has him clinging to simplicity and familiarity. He rekindles love with both an old flame and his hometown in "Slow Dance," identifying this newfound safety perfectly in one line: "In a place like this I should never be afraid." He further states his willingness to plant his roots back in home soil in the following "Little Nowhere Towns," singing "And I've already grown up here / Here I might as well grow down," but his mind starts to pine for an untethered life again in "Sagres," though it's wrapped in his perpetual lack of fulfillment ("And so here I go again / Say I want my freedom sure / But it's like end of all the dreams / Like in my life I needed more").
His ambivalence towards staying and leaving is only made tougher by also being paired with choosing to leave his regained romance, starkly admitting his unwillingness to part ways with her in "Believers" ("I could just leave tomorrow but baby letting you go / All these songs would be just of sorrow"), even though he believes full and well that they both belong elsewhere ("You and I, we belong on these wild and wonderful trails"). Ultimately, he accepts his need to leave in order to move forward in the ending titular song, bittersweetly signing off with his former hope and realized truth in hand, "No, this is not the end and no final tears / That will lead to show / I thought this would last a million years / But now I need to go / Oh f--k."
Overall Impression — 7
It's clear that Matsson has little concern for any outcries in regards to his branching out from acoustic minimalism, but as seen in the contradicting compositional mentalities in numerous moments of "Dark Bird Is Home," he's still got kinks to work out in transition from his root style to his new songwriting aspirations. But though "Dark Bird Is Home" is hampered by some of these growing pains, Matsson is indeed getting closer to the optimal answer he's striving towards, which, as indicated in the moral of the album's story, is much more preferable than stagnancy.