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It happens about three-and-a-half minutes into album opener 'Fields of our Home', a quiet choral explosion knocks you off balance with its bass, shifting the steady ground of expectation towards unfamiliar territory. The song ends before your equilibrium is fully restored, before your brain can process the change Kristian Matsson races into 'Darkness of the Dream', leaving you somewhat incredulous, wait, is that a snare drum?. Woven amongst guitars and the layers of surrounding sound is the piano, an instrument previously used by Matsson to capture the tenderest of moments, only it's now driving the most upbeat festival-clap-along-tour-footage-montage-video song that he has released. The nuances of his voice carry the moment onwards as he delivers each verse slightly differently to the last, propelling it towards The Tallest Man On Earth version 2.0.
Once the momentum he's carrying starts to wane, the band drops out, intelligently allowing for a momentary intake of breath and the internal revelation that this will rightly ascend The Tallest Man On Earth towards the upper echelons, before they strike up again for a victory lap. Matsson double speeds his words as you're fully sold in full flow, and righteous with nowhere else to go, but instead of trying or dwelling, they allow the sound to overtake them, and the song twinkles out like some far off dying star.
It serves to make 'Singers' feel even more nostalgic than it usually would - the solo performance feels more impressive, his acoustics now are subtly punctuated by woodwind and strings. Which feels restrained after the initial excess, even though it is still much more than would've been used on previous albums - the opening punch moved the boundaries.
Matsson has always been a charismatic performer, yet his early reputation was tarnished by the Dylan-esque label, with critics unable to hear past his nasal voice to the undoubted lyrical and technical prowess he possessed. His furious picking style defined 'Shallow Grave' and his self titled EP with an agitation, giving it a feeling of unease, however, underneath the surface a melancholy was evident. It just took until 'Kids On The Run' at the end of 2010's The Wild Hunt to rise to the surface. From that point on though, melancholy has defined the music that he made, attaching itself intrinsically to the tone and resonance of his sound. It was evident throughout the Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird EP, which introduced the electric guitar, and by the time There's No Leaving Now was released it was a flawless gloss.
The continual shift towards space and stillness in his sound, driven by a confidence you can only find through years of touring, has been mirrored in his willingness to address and confront issues rather than hide behind characters and metaphors. Yet whilst his sound has steadily evolved, nothing quite prepares you for the moment that snare hits, such is the shock of hearing Matsson's voice punctuated by drums. Underlined with a new fullness, the songs on this album are surrounded by a complementary ambience of instrumentation, resonating like the words they accompany; Dark Bird is Home presents the most singular, personal, and coherent message of his career so far.
It's the story of a musician that returns home from tour to find a different home to the one built inside his head, the story of the end of his marriage, the story of the beginning of a new journey. The doubt that colours the album is matched in its pacing, it's not until over halfway through that he commits to the new full band approach for two songs in a row, instead jumping between the styles like he is toying with the idea or still coming to terms with it himself. The jumping off point is 'Sagres', the heart of the album, the moment of despairing acceptance that perhaps his questions won't be answered, or that they don't need to be answered for him to move on.
Thematically the album is based around mutually exclusive elements: light versus dark, home versus travelling, belief versus doubt, and the interaction between opposites makes a compelling story. Matsson plays himself as the dark, the light is his wife, but the sunlight is also their love, their home, the home he believed in whilst travelling alone, which no longer exists on his return. The most traumatic and heartbreaking parts of the album are when you realise that he hasn't come to terms with that reality. He sings "there will be a moment when I ask you to believe in love" it's just a they throw away line in 'Beginners' but it is crushing nonetheless. In the title track his voice breaks almost three minutes in, before he sings "this is not the end, no this is fine,". It's only a stutter, a little gulp for air, but like the album as a whole it is a moment of such pure honest emotion that you could be buried under the weight of it.
Surprisingly, for an album with such tempestuous subject matters, it feels far from bleak, which is testament to Matsson's skill as a songwriter. The darkest moments are eluded to, kept within the confines of questions and doubts, or wrapped up in stories. Others are only revealed if you know his back catalogue, innocuous lines like "the garden is full" are transformed when matched up to the murderous gardener from his debut album, who buried his love rivals under the flowerbeds. When he sings "suddenly the rain is the only part you feel," it's made all the more meaningful with the knowledge that once he focussed on what followed the rain, knowing that the time for teaming metaphors with a wry smile and nervous optimism has long since past.
In fact, you could be forgiven for missing the subject matter of this album entirely, as monumental as it must be for its protagonist, to the listener it is secondary to the change in style. The seemingly effortless switch to a full band suits Matsson's voice and his songwriting, the increased scope allows him to showcase the depth of his talent in ways that he couldn't on his own. There is a certain amount of freedom to be found when you are not the only performer on the stage, and when you think about all that he has accomplished solo, the opportunity to explore this context provides a musician of Matsson's calibre with almost limitless potential. What we have here is the beginning of that, Dark Bird is Home is an exemplary set of songs, one that should introduce him to a wider audience. It is a cliché but it really shows the power of music, Kristian Matsson found himself in an awful situation, processed it through writing, and over the course of one album left you feeling excited for the future.
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