Nothing makes folk listeners break out in hives more rapidly than “going electric”. In a genre so strongly characterised by authenticity and rawness, adding instrumentation runs a real risk of smothering the artist’s sound and making it bland. For Kristian Matsson, performing under the moniker The Tallest Man on Earth, extra elements have slowly crept into his music bit by bit. On his earliest albums, that most folky of instruments – the banjo – dominates, with brief spells of acoustic guitar. Soon the banjo was sidelined in favour of the acoustic guitar, with one or two tunes on the piano. On his third full-length LP, There’s No Leaving Now, released in 2012, the electric guitar came into the fold. I reviewed the album very positively at the time, but I feel like Matsson was still trying to find his stride. This came at a time when the tone of his music was changing as well, and so he has been trying to find the instrumentation to reflect that. On his 2010 release, The Wild Hunt, Matsson yelled every word like it was his last. There’s No Leaving Now saw a far more reflective and introspective Tallest Man. As he said in an interview, No Leaving Now was an album about facing problems head-on, rather than running away from them as on The Wild Hunt.
Now we come to Dark Bird Is Home, The Tallest Man on Earth’s fourth full-length LP. The announcement of this album was shortly followed by the single Sagres from the album. Many long-time fans found themselves distraught at the new instrumentation – Tallest Man had gone full band, drums and everything. Complaints were mostly that the instrumentation was bland, and his trademark voice drowned out. I had a different response. It’s important to realise that Tallest Man’s style has changed. The Wild Hunt was urgent and fast, full of energy. No Leaving Now signalled a move towards a far more relaxed style, with songs being generally slower, mellower, more introspective. This is the style that I think Tallest Man has honed even further in Dark Bird. Far from drowning him out, for me the added instrumentation supports and augments the flow of his songs. The drums entering in the outro of the title track, for example, add a fresh new layer to Tallest Man’s repertoire, lifting the song in a completely different way to his previous work.
Dark Bird Is Home also sees a stronger emphasis on melody. Moving a little further away from his furiously-picked banjo beginnings, songs like Timothy and Little Nowhere Towns show a new Tallest Man. Where before his guitar work mainly served as rhythm and texture, the guitar and piano of these two songs in particular follow his voice, providing a very strong rhythm that is hard to forget.
Long-time fans of folk or Tallest Man will certainly be worried about the new direction Matsson has taken, and may well react negatively at first, but for me the change works. If he tried to produce another Wild Hunt, it would probably fail. He must change and adapt as his life and style changes too. Dark Bird Is Home takes the direction he was headed towards on No Leaving Now and masters it. The end result is an album that is every bit as satisfying as his older works, but in a completely different way. And that’s one hell of an accomplishment.