One classic Onion article bears the headline “Kind, Bearded Christian Has Guitar, Story To Tell.” Change “Christian” to “Kristian,” and you have a CliffsNotes description of Kristian Mattson’s career as The Tallest Man On Earth. Ever since his debut, Shallow Grave, became one of the most auspicious folk debuts in years and his brilliant sophomore effort, The Wild Hunt, proved he could weather and even embrace the Bob Dylan comparisons while still having his own voice, Mattson has seemed to have been in an artistic struggle of how best to reconcile the rawness that brought his audience with a natural desire to bring more textures into his sound.

After the utterly forgettable There’s No Leaving Now, Mattson returned with the gorgeous (and criminally-underrated) Dark Bird Is Home. On this post-divorce album, Mattson didn’t close the blinds nor did he let too much sunshine in. The increase in instrumentation was done in service to his songwriting, not as pointless embellishments. His pain could be felt. If it wasn’t as vulnerable in performance as previous standout records, lacking moments that sound like he’s busking on a busy street corner with no self-consciousness, it more than made up for it in how it strove to express that which is so hard to express.

The night is darkest just before the dawn. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mattson’s latest, I Love You. It’s A Fever Dream., has a bit more of a smile on its face, or at least a more neutral expression. Anyone who’s reminded by the title of the second Father John Misty album should know that this isn’t Mattson becoming The Wryest Man On Earth. Aside from moments like a reference to his “little Swedish heart” on ‘I’m A Stranger Now’ (the closest thing to a vintage Tallest Man track here), he soaks in earnestness. While earnestness doesn’t have to be justified by an artist, Mattson gets so caught up in pontification, he occasionally forgets to be a unique songwriter.

Fans of his last album will be pleased to know that Mattson still has quite a stockpile of instrumentation, but they may be disappointed by how they’re utilized. The classically lonesome harmonica that opens the album on ‘Hotel Bar’ works, as do the bleating horns that rise, along with Mattson’s signature acoustic guitar. Piano and flute would theoretically be spellbinding additions, but he rushes what should be a gradual buildup. When the song bursts open after the second chorus, the moment has been squandered. His weary vocals still hit in all the right places, making you wish he had just kept things stripped-back.

Those who prefer a stripped-back Mattson will be pleased to know that there’s a good deal of that here, but they may be disappointed by the lack of go-for-broke, strum-til-you-drop classics like ‘The Gardener’ or ‘Burden of Tomorrow'. Mattson does cut a bit loose on 'The Running Styles of New York' and 'I’m A Stranger Now', but the energy is more in relation to the modestly-picked songs surrounding them. There’s a moment of fun to be found in how he pronounces “kicking” on the moving and pastoral ‘What I’ve Been Kicking Around,’ that could’ve served as an inspiration to loose up other parts of the album.

There’s long been a timeless quality to Mattson’s lyricism, and I Love You. It’s A Fever Dream. follows suit. Sometimes he lands on stanzas worth savoring (“All that I fear is that all that I have given you is a ship out to nowhere that wants to be out of control/but I see the light in oh so many things out here, and a lifetime so gently now sits on the stairs to my home.”) Other times, timelessness gives way to stuffiness, with lyrics that act more like riddles he doesn’t really care about solving (“When every wind is an afterlife out here, what language do you dream in when you’re drunk?”) He also fixates his lyrics on the sky and celestial bodies so much that the unknowable nature of the universe starts to become rather ho-hum. By the time a song called 'I’ll Be A Sky' pops up, it feels like it’s already been done.

Mattson’s heart is in the right place, and he’s still capable of striking an emotional chord. The closing title track brings the riddle motif inward as he contemplates, “Well, I’ve been thinking about the mystery as I’m driving here, through it all/I’ve seen this road so many times before it’s where I’m from, oh my heart.” He then puts his affection outward, revealing the titular declaration is not to one person but to everyone listening. It’s a sweet, honest moment, but at the end of an album that keeps an uncomfortable emotional distance, it’s hard not to wonder: what took him so long?