There’s this prevailing idea in art — and music, especially — that the creative product is the result of some inarticulable anguish in the blood, that it carves a destructive path out of the artist’s body and usually ends up splayed out on the floor, dripping, awkward, and lovely to behold. If there’s any genre of music whose appeal relies on this admittedly precious idea of art, it’s folk. There’s something about the typically traditional instrumentation all wreathed around the voice of the pastoral poet that leads audiences to pay attention. More often than not, commanding that kind of automatic willingness to consider is an asset to the genre, but it also puts a microscope to the music.
J. Tillman has a great, emotive voice, which is likely a requirement to be a member of his other project, Fleet Foxes. He’s also pretty good at creating an atmosphere, and then floating the rest of a particular track through it to the end. Indeed, the best moments on Tillman’s sixth studio release, Year in the Kingdom, are when the atmospherics of Tillman’s music are compelling enough to grab us at the beginning of the track and hold us until the end.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen as much as you might like. Tillman manages it successfully on Year in the Kingdom‘s first two advance tracks — “Heavenly Bodies” and “Though I Have Wronged You” — and a couple of others. But on an album with nine tracks, that is not enough.
Where Tillman falters is when his own sparse, atmospheric approach invites listeners to pay a great deal of attention to the content of his tracks. For instance, “There Is No Good In Me” already has a pretty loaded title, but when the lyrics are every bit as histrionic as the title is, it’s hard to take Tillman’s earnest confession seriously. And that’s not the only time that Tillman commits a similar offense.
Music that’s built more around the image earnest and honesty than musicality can definitely be a powerful thing, but that’s just the problem: It’s either powerful or it’s not. On Year in the Kindgom, J. Tillman is either a soothsaying troubdaour, or he’s not. And on his next release, he needs to aim to get rid of all the “not.”