Release Date: 28 September 2009
J. Tillman excels at raw, sparsely arranged songs -- and at deceptively sparse-sounding ones that are actually loaded with accompaniment yet still spotlight his quietly intense vocal performances. Like Minor Works and Vacilando Territory Blues before it, 2009's Year in the Kingdom is a mix of both. What sets Kingdom apart in Tillman's catalog is a more traditional folk feel to the album, with vocals that perform to a small room instead of into the ear of a companion, and, as the title hints, thematic use of Biblical references, if in existential contexts. Recurring subjects include taking stock of the past and contemplation of the end of life, but the album isn't oppressively solemn. In typical Tillman fashion, his melodies offer gorgeous transport for the serious subject matter. The sultry "Earthly Bodies," the closest thing to a love song on the record, is a melodic standout, gathering momentum with judiciously placed backing vocals over percussive keys and rolling rhythms. The earnest "Age of Man," with only voice and banjo, plays as part folk tune, part congregational hymn, with a lilting melody and lyrics replete with religious language and imagery ("holy visions," "blessed union," "the stake in through the hands"). The album also has notable non-vocal moments. With more sophisticated instrumentation, "Crosswinds," though still pensive, is musically expressive via unexpected woodwind effects, creaks, squeaks, gong, and triangle, among other aural textures. "There Is No Good in Me" is similarly eerie and striking, with strings and guitars offering surprising strains of dissonance and quiet effects that culminate in a ghostly choir before voices and sounds fall away to expose strummed acoustic guitar. Despite being brought into harmonic powerhouse Fleet Foxes in 2008 for his voice in tandem with his drumming, Tillman remains an under-celebrated vocalist. With Year in the Kingdom, even after the success of acts like Iron & Wine and Bon Iver contributed to a growing field of indie folk crooners in the first decade of the 2000s, he continues to establish himself as a distinct and legitimate figure in both roles of singer and songwriter.
- Marcy Donelson, AllMusic (2009)