There’s something cloyingly familiar about the works of The Tallest Man On Earth, from the distant chirpy acoustic strum to the click echo on the vocals and the plaintive emoting about…something vaguely upsetting, but not enough to get, like, properly angry about. Well, he is a bit Swedish, and who could get teasy when you’re surrounded by all them trees, fjords and stacks of ABBA and Ace Of Base records?
Known to his mum as Kristian Matsson, he’s been beavering away with a hands-on approach to writing and producing his works wherever his gypsy heart ends up for over nine years now, bringing his nuanced acoustic beaverings to the likes of Bon Iver fans when he supported the hirsute cabin-dweller in 2008.
When he first ushered into the world the promise of his splendid early lo-fi album debut Shallow Grave he bore a resemblance to the ‘hands-in-the-dirt’, ‘feet up on the porch’ stylings of Iron And Wine, but with subsequent releases the rough edges have been sanded off by the wash of more available money to leave something polished and casually impersonal.
Sharing a love of open tunings and finger picking, as opted for by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and (more relevantly) Nick Drake there is no doubting his virtuosity around the six strings, but with his American vocal mannerisms of dustbowl projections it seems a bit too much like musical tourism to connect with; similar to coming across ‘vintage’ postcards or a speed-flicking through a coffee-table book about ‘dustbowl Americana’.
Beginning promisingly with the sleight Fields Of Our Home, full of clipped wispy guitar figures and slowly swelling reverb, it speaks of leaving home and discovering the world is bigger, making for an appreciation of the simplicity left behind. It is a gentle beckoning into a hushed world of intimacy that is at once familiar but oddly otherworldly. The shame is that this isn’t explored more fully.
Darkness Of Dream flexes the ‘full band’ muscle but sounds like a Noah And The Whale cast-off (see also Seventeen) with its tale of meeting a “girl from out of town” and “a fear of heart and all its turnings” before the endless repetition of the song title. It’s a jolly puff of faux bon homie that jars with the teased-out sense of space of the opener. Like being lured around a campfire to discover that the singer is a crushing party bore playing crowd pleasers now they’ve snared your attention.
Dark Bird Is Home seems a schizophonic album split between these ethereal, sparse pieces and the MOR driving tracks with seemingly little variance or thought gone into how one plays off the other. It’s with albums like these that the archaic habit of reshuffling the track order on those soon-to-be-redundant CDs would be best employed.
The repeating ‘party trick’ of putting a click echo on all the slower pieces (such as Singers) seems a calculated effect to make them appear authentic vintage, but comes across as an obstacle to letting the songs breathe their own air. The busy guitar picking spoils what could otherwise be a sparse and beautiful track full of wheezing accordion, oboe and the essence of sunsets over harvest fields.
Then too soon, the forced jollity of Slow Dance skiffles into view like Lloyd Cole forced through a sieve of bland music-by-numbers. But, to spice things up he even does a random sweary on Sagres, which rings as hollow as the vapid musical setting which seems intent on piling on more effects to flesh out something (a tune) that is barely there. But by contrast, beginners gets the balance right with some breezy lightness of touch balancing the spilling finger-picking with a brief piano trill, and vocals that skip, hush and harmonise to great effect.
The Dark Bird of the title is a metaphorical female figure of uncertainty and change that comes close to owning its own space, but then backs off to easier routes because Kristian clearly possesses some considerable skill but the staid musical settings, the monomania of his yearning lyrical obsessions (got a girl – it’s great, lost a girl – it’s crap) make this an average album by a potentially interesting artist.
Unfortunately there is something resolutely false-sounding about these tales from the road and wanderlust, with the sense that home is just a credit card away, and heartbreak can be healed at a middle-class yurt retreat. As life choices go, a rejection of the modern world with all its woes, deceit and loss of authenticity is a noble path that many before have trod and has been over, but Dark Bird Is Home isn’t one of them.