Album Reviews

J Tillman – Year In The Kingdom

(Bella Union) UK release date: 28 September 2009

J Tillman - Year In The Kingdom Fleet Foxes drummer J Tillman has got a knack for quiet acoustic balladry, but he also carries an unshakable penchant for weighing down his loose, meandering tunes with heavy-handed earnestness. Trading in the Foxes’ tight harmonies and glistening arrangements for his own stark, worn voice and a wash of ambient noise, Tillman’s Year In The Kingdom achieves a sort of stripped down laziness and Five Leaves Left sobriety.

Still, the dreamy, lackadaisical quality serves as a bit of a distraction here, as Tillman allows each song to come untethered from its terrestrial moorings to float along in a sort of slow-moving celestial river. That, coupled with the overall earnestness of the lyrics (on Earthly bodies, Tillman sings, “Let me lay across your crescent spine, press my belly to the mountainside”), gives this, Tillman’s second release this year, overall a cold and unapproachable quality, despite the fragile beauty of the songs and Tillman’s earthy voice.

At moments (Crosswinds, There Is No Good In Me), ambient noises, off-kilter percussion and general dissonance create a feel not unlike Wilco‘s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but, while considerably more subtle, the effect of effortless avant-garde credibility is never quite achieved.

Despite singing “I put aside the yearning of my voice when I was young” amid the quiet cacophony of Crosswinds and claiming to be a “poor brother” who had his birthright sold on the roadside for “half what it was worth,” Tillman comes across as a lonely dreamer, a Nick Drake disciple disconnected in time.

In fact his voice is thick with yearning, and his lyrics seem to reflect a discontented quality that comes across as alternately endearing and overly aloof and metaphorical (on There Is No Good In Me, he takes on the role of a malign deity, singing, “There is no good in me, I have a taste for blood… I’m silent in a jealous tongue, I have rendered families from their home that I may lay claim to their young”).

On the pseudo-soul, slow motion foot-tapper Howling Light, Tillman laments, with earthy imagery, the hardships of being alive: “Howling into glacial light, deafening in the weight as your waking days unwind.” He sings, “But now the living are alive,” almost as if this were a regrettable thing, but continues to croon lazily – and very near happily – in a cracked falsetto over a backdrop of swooning strings before giving way to a reservedly jovial round of handclaps by way of a sighing and quiet gospel-group backdrop. Still, Tillman’s voice imbues each lyric with a sense of deep meaning. In this respect he demands the listener’s attention.

On the opening title track he croaks, “Comfort used to pass my days before you shook the cold from me.” Here is a man who carries his burden – whatever it may be – like a cloak against the elements, living perhaps in fear of the time when “…release comes for me like a thief in the night.” And despite the overall drifting, wandering, night-sky quality of his arrangements, Tillman himself comes across as one grounded in a tradition of well-rooted, naturalistic folk exuberance, a songwriter feigning hunchbacked and burdened tranquility, rather than embracing the melodic rises and falls he’s capable of creating.

Year In The Kingdom is a quiet, windy record for quiet, windy mornings, and as such it succeeds in being highly listenable and sombre in all the right places. Perhaps, though, the album lacks a bright spot, an elbow-rubbed centre of the windowpane allowing the warmth and light to escape. It’s hiding behind the edges of Tillman’s voice, waiting for release.

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