There is perhaps no better thesis statement to the post-Bob Dylan songs of The Tallest Man On Earth than “just part of what we do out here/subtle early, vicious late.”
The line arrives, lilting, on the first song, "Fields of Our Home", of fourth LP, Dark Bird Is Home, an indication that these little acoustic creations, the derivative Woody Gutherie jetwash that buffets songwriter Kristian Matsson's work, hold a hidden power.
The viciousness of Matsson's work lies in no small part in its simplicity, a universal quality. In an age where folk aesthetics have become a bad punchline, Matsson carries on with his lively strum patterns and road songs. The central trope is that you could find yourself "somewhere out there", maybe even that acoustic guitar music could still mean something, an identity crisis as earnest as it is well-worn. On Dark Bird Is Home, Matsson turns lyrically inward, a deep self-examination of a life on the road, while pursuing some of the most capacious arrangements of his young career.
The cover art features a woman with her back to the viewer, a few steps inside of a chain-link fence gate. She stares, it's easy to imagine, somewhat trepedatiously, at one of the places of her origin. And yet there is no joy in this image of home coming, what the Greeks would have called nostos. It's as easy to picture her turning around to retreat through the space in the fence as is it is to see her cautiously opening the frontdoor. If you look a bit closer, it's not even clear she's standing in the yard of the house at which she stares; the fence is between them, and she could easily be standing next door, viewing her return from afar, Odyessus hiding as the beggar. Only there is no eventual triumph here.
Matsson shoots Dark Bird Is Home through with the dialogical relationship between "home" and "away", perhaps even the idea that the road impulse is as attractive as it illusory. Matsson sings, "It only takes is a gravel road in his early life," on "Timothy", suggesting that some of his escape velocity built in the dreams of childhood. The unasked question, how does one craft identity when self-conception is driven by getting away?
While the road imagery of "Timothy" appears again and again on Dark Bird Is Home, the arrangement represents a new and more bombastic version of Matsson's bucolic hymns. The chorus on "Timothy" is a series of "oh's", a hook that wouldn't be uncomfortable, melodically, on an Imagine Dragons song. The surprising appearance of a leading clarinet mirrors the hook in a loop, the most head-nodding jam on the record. Matsson sings, "It's a long way to get out," a cypher for the new arrangement ideas that pepper Dark Bird.
The opening two tracks, "Fields of Our Home" and "Darkness of the Dream" feature a choir of backing vocals rising behind Matsson, evidence that the singer is now as interested in building vaulted arches as much as he is in the smaller architecture that lies along the side of the road. It's something of an existential question, as he later declares, to everyone and no one, "You and I belong on these wild and wonderful trails."
Dark Bird ... is at once Matsson's most spacious record and his most intimate. It’s certainly his most vulgar album, exacting emphasis from blue language like "It's just all this fucking doubt," with aching impact. As much as Matsson gets us out on the road, running through towns "like a wrecking ball", the more terrifying geography lies within. On "Little Nowhere Towns", Matsson sings to Carolina, who is likely a real person and also a placeholder for anyone. "Carolina, where you ending up this time?", he murmurs the first time, before innovating the lyric into "Where are we going to be found?" in the song's final movement. The listener echos between losing and finding, between coming and going. Writer Amitav Ghosh reflects on the same question as: "Every language assumes a centrality, a fixed and settled point to go away from and go back to," later, like Matsson, discovering that language itself is limited -- our most complex questions cast as "a journey which was not a coming or a going at all; a journey that was a search for precisely that fixed point which permits the proper use of verbs of movement." Matsson calls this journey "home", an illusory "fixed point" that also could be anywhere.
Self-discovery represents the goal and the uncertainty on Dark Bird Is Home. His songs are "mirrors", Matsson sings, but not necessarily good ones. "Little Nowhere Towns" has Matsson staring long at himself, the artist, singing, "selling emptiness to strangers, a little bit warmer than my dreams." This record, then, represents only a portion of the darkness that lies within and without. We are left, like the image of the cover, maybe as Carolina -- that beautiful, craved, distant other -- maybe as Matsson or ourselves, staring at our homes from afar; first subtle, then vicious.