Review of Year In The Kingdom Album by J. Tillman


Better known for his drumming duties with current indie-folk kings Fleet Foxes, Josh Tillman presents himself on Year In The Kingdom as something of a multi-instrumentalist, stepping away from his guitar staple-diet and making use of banjo, recorder and, perhaps most interestingly, the hammered dulcimer. In fact pretty much every sound heard on this his sixth album, with the exception of the semi-dictated string arrangements performed by Jenna Conrad, has been made by Tillman himself, further enhancing his reputation as a home-grown solo artist.

Tillman explains that Year In The Kingdom is an essay in lyrical creativity based on an end-of-life perspective; '[It's] about looking back and remembering things in a totally inaccurate way, a way that's maybe more joyful than it actually was'.

Tillman has certainly succeeded in producing an album with an air of reminiscence about it, a sensation of time standing still. Opening the title track with just a guitar and his dulcet tones, there's something liberating about Tillman's surrender of the materialistic; although a little cringe-inducing at times ('What I stole was yours to keep/It's no more mine to reclaim than the rocks and the trees'), the open gestures of the lyrics are in-keeping with the laid back lilt of the musical accompaniment.

'Crosswinds' introduces an almost cinematic feel to proceedings with the untamed wilderness sounds that are kept at bay by the flaming torch of the guitar and the dulcimer. But perhaps it is here where difficulties begin to creep in; while there is certainly something deeply soothing about Tillman's relaxed vocals and the self-assurance of his lyrics ('We'll find each other where we promised/Where the tide is low for man and spirits/I put aside the yearning of my voice when I was young') it's hard not to begin to feel a certain uncomfortable distance emerging between him and the listener. In his passive expression, it almost feels like there is a human element missing, a connection with the real world that has been severed.

Of course, this isn't necessarily a bad thing; the ability of Year In The Kingdom to numb your awareness of daily life is startling and almost therapeutic, allowing you to truly recognise the beauty of his music. Piano-topped 'Earthly Bodies' is a truly gorgeous piece of song-writing, and the feeling of repose it induces allows you to appreciate the eastern flavour of 'Howling Light'.

Unfortunately it's a lack of variation that ultimately brings the album down. The music is always extremely pleasant but you reach a point in listening where you realise that each track is almost indistinguishable from the last, and if you're looking for anything up-tempo then a quick dredge of Year In The Kingdom will yield nothing. Tillman's voice also remains a constant throughout; as wonderful as it is, its unchanging tranquillity makes it difficult to connect it with the vivid lyrical subject matter. When he sings of holy visions in such a tone, it hardly invokes excitement, and when he opens a song with 'There is no good in me/I have a taste for blood', it sounds about as credible as Aled Jones proclaiming a passion for rape and pillage. That said, once the initial paradox is out of the way, 'There Is No Good In Me' evolves into an affecting narrative of someone coming to terms with their own infallibility, the choir-lifted climax a definite album highlight.

With Year In The Kingdom, J. Tillman presents us with a truly beautiful album but sadly one that is hard to enthuse about, perhaps due to a seeming lack relevance to life today; maybe this just stems from the reverie the music often induces. Consequently, at the very least, this album offers a quiet place to go when daily toil becomes a little too wearing; just don't expect to remember it all that well when you return.

Rich Powell

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