J. Tillman Year in the Kingdom

[Western Vinyl; 2009]

Styles: folk, gospel
Others: Richard Buckner, Fleet Foxes, Damien Jurado

For someone hilariously described by one Mojo Magazine reader as looking like “a backwoods killer out a seventies slasher exploitation film,” J. Tillman, widely known for his role as drummer in Fleet Foxes, sure makes some reverent music. Year in the Kingdom, Tillman’s fifth long-player, is an expansive pallet of barely strummed acoustic guitar, yearning melodies, and soft atmospherics, his hushed vocals intoning vaguely Christian sentiments about “thieves in the night,” “forgiveness” and “the garden.” At times bracingly desolate, the record recalls the Laurel Canyon echoes of Beck’s Sea Change, only renders them more spartan, less given to overt swells, altogether more mystic, restrained and displaced.

It’s the kind of record that seems destined for specific utility: Pulling up any one of these songs on that fancy internet jukebox at the bar would quickly clear the room. And yet they wouldn’t fit the mood of a worship service either. Whereas Sufjan Steven’s Seven Swans, a touchstone reference for Year in the Kingdom, might do in that setting, Tillman doesn’t expose any particular orthodoxy. The record seems best suited to backyard listening, late at night, with a whiskey and water handy, or an AA meeting, huddled in a folding chair, cradling a styrofoam cup of coffee. Any place where vague, hazy spirituality works, where answers aren’t necessary, just an openness to accept that universal feeling of wonder.

Tillman’s records have always been sparse affairs, and the most satisfying aspect of Year in the Kingdom is how subtle and effective his developing extra touches are. The stomping claps and percussion of “Though I Have Wronged You” create a rich current underneath the arching melody. “Crosswinds” opens with a cacophony of cymbals, birdcalls, and scraping metal, before stately harpsichord gives way to Tillman’s smoky voice. His voice, a tool utilized live by Fleet Foxes (he didn’t play on the band’s debut or the Sun King EP), promises to add a new dimension to that band’s sound and on his own. And Tillman proves more than capable; his husky tone gives way to an aching falsetto, more complex and developed than the average folk busker. His voice carries raw moments like “Earthly Bodies,” where he describes vividly and with naturalistic metaphor the act of watching a lover sleep. Other times he gets more celestial: “Though I Have Wronged You” asks for forgiveness, draping the plea in religious language, speaking of “the lamb,” “debt” and “the bridegroom,” using the terms as broad-strokes, their implications lending heavy imagery to the listener's interpretations.

Consequently, Tillman’s music can sometimes be too beautiful. Over the course of the record, he conjures little more than pastoral calm. Even when the lyrics wander toward darker territory, like in “There Is No Good In Me,” where Tillman assumes the guise of some malevolent ghost, “rendering families from their home,” that he “may lay claim to their young,” Tillman keeps his voice at bay. It rises, but not half as climactically as it could. Tillman is often compared to Will Oldham, but he could perhaps take a few cues from that man’s idiosyncratic songbook; the surprises could work wonders added to Tillman’s already rich work.
Of course, the need for variation only strikes as one “thinks” about the record. Simply listening, sipping, and indulging the record leaves little room for want. The gorgeous melodies, catholic sentiments, and cosmically spiritual qualities are more than enjoyable; they seem genuine and plainspoken. Few songwriters have the ability to pull off this naked of a record. Tillman does, and Year in the Kingdom suggests whatever band he’s drumming for is ultimately inconsequential; this backwoods wanderer seems fully capable of detailing his wreckage on his own.

1. Year In The Kingdom
2. Crosswinds
3. Earthly Bodies
4. Howling Light
5. Though I Have Wronged You
6. Age Of Man
7. There Is No Good In Me
8. Marked In The Valley
9. Light Of The Living

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