It’s a little ironic that some of the most stirring, evocative Americana in today’s indie-rock landscape comes from central Sweden. On the other hand, Kristian Matsson, better known as the Tallest Man on Earth, might sing in the key of Dylan (though recently he’s adopted more of an adenoidal naturalism à la Deer Tick’s John McCauley), but he knows better than to indulge the kind of historical pageantry that makes even the most virtuosic, authentically rustic folk-rock bands sound like novelty acts. Instead, he enlists American folk’s instrumentation and rural iconography to tell haunting first-person narratives untethered to a time or place. On Dark Bird Is Home, this fourth album, the imagery is still more general than specific, but it’s delivered in the uncanny manner of a lucid dream.
Indeed, dreams are a recurring theme throughout the album. So, too, is home, which students of Freud will recognize as integral to his concept of the uncanny, or “Unheimlich,” roughly translated as “unhomelike” (for Freud, the term refers to the profound unease felt when the familiar is somehow not quite right). On opener “The Fields of Home,” home is an imagined ideal only visible once the dust settles from wanton self-destruction. By the closing title track, it’s the point of forced return, its comforting qualities long gone. As refuges from a cruel world, dreams and domesticity are inflected by despair. Matsson refuses to fall asleep alone on “Darkness of the Dream,” but only once the world burns, and describes “lethal thoughts” toward a flighty new wife in “Beginners” as they attempt to put furniture together.
Rarely is any of this as gloomy as it reads. Matsson’s songs are rarely buoyant, and washes of reverb give his tales a fittingly ethereal quality, but most of Dark Bird Is Home takes a tone of celebratory resignation to fate. “Darkness of the Dream,” “Beginners,” and the foot-stomping “Slow Dance” are especially energetic, even when Matsson’s rasp is at its most melancholic. Keeping with his own pattern since 2010’s The Wild Hunt, as well as seemingly every indie-folk rocker since Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, Matsson moves away from Nick Drake-like intimacy and ever closer to a full-band sound on Dark Bird Is Home. He doesn’t go full Judas (acoustic guitars remain paramount), but he does add brass, driving rhythms, and multitracked vocals to his more traditional toolbox to achieve the anthemic affect of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and even Fleetwood Mac.
But even more than banjos and honky-tonk pianos, Matsson’s most pronounced nod to American roots-rock tradition is an ambiance of rootlessness, inherent to the mythos of the western frontier. Throughout Dark Bird Is Home, the bird of the title is an itinerant soul who’s variably found singing, blind, or taking the form of lightning or wind, sometimes all at once, and invariably destroys everything and everyone within reach. The final track is the bird’s attempt to console a long-suffering lover as death, or perhaps a breakup, rapidly approaches. Matsson’s platitudes are vivid and poetic, but platitudes they are, undermined by the faintness of their optimism: “Still we’re in the light of day/With our ghosts within” encourages living in the present by suppressing the reckonings of the past. When his time arrives, however, he’s unable to face it himself, and his last unceremonious words, “Oh, fuck,” are trampled by a widescreen outro straight off John Mellencamp’s American Fool. Matsson might be offering another round of familiar sounds on Dark Bird Is Home, however impeccably arranged and played. The darkness and ambivalence that haunt its shadows, however, give the album depth and longevity well beyond its something-for-everyone first impression.
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