Spotlight: The Tallest Man on Earth
“The whole content of my being,” Kierkegaard wrote, “shrieks in contradiction against itself.”
Maybe it’s a Scandinavian condition.
Kristian Matsson, for example, is an agnostic named after a Christianity. If the classic “Americanness” of his woozy, twang-bent growl dissolves when you try to trace it to a particular region, then it’s because he’s Swedish. (The fact that his James Dean pompadour sits atop the compact face of an alpine skier captures this cultural tension nicely). Five-foot-nothing and terminally shy, he performs under the stage name The Tallest Man on Earth. And despite the fact that he weaves intricate guitar fabrics with equally busy syntax, his English is still a work in progress. The cumulative effect of all this is that Matsson’s deeply familiar music is also exceedingly, refreshingly strange—as though it’s refracting coveted folk traditions through cracked glass.
Showcasing a wide spectrum of metabolized pre-war and 1960s acoustic blues influences—from Robert Johnson to Skip James—at first listen, The Wild Hunt and Shallow Grave seem to document a more urgent, original strain of the same old Dylan-inspired revivalism. Lyrically, though, the albums are both weird rural collages in which bits of trash-compacted blues vernacular (“high and lonesome sound,” “honey, won’t you let me in?”) overlap the kind of evocative non-sequiturs you’d find in Pavement’s catalog. (“Now the ghost is in my jacket and my stairs are built in anger.”)
And as far as “revivalists” are concerned, Matsson is a sleight-of-hand man. Like Dylan, he knows that the comfort and familiarity of traditional forms can be used to make the listener tolerate a much more private and abstract approach to lyrics, and he’s smart about using his encyclopedic command of those forms to press his advantage. In fact, the more straightforward or sentimental the song, the more dangerous you can expect the narrator to be. A hilariously macabre spin on a paranoid love song, “The Gardener” features a smitten serial killer using rival suitors to “fertilize his roses.”
A bedroom recording of haunted pastorals, Matsson’s made his debut Shallow Grave outside of a small village in his native Dalarna—a historical province in Sweden known for its lakes and deep forests. “There’s not a lot going on,” Matsson says. “Nature is your playfield there. I think it’s the base of everything for me—a big part of who I am, and it’s a canvas. I tend to project whatever I’m feeling onto all of that.”
Intimate and idiosyncratic, the album listens less like a post-millennial record than a posthumously discovered field recording—one of those dusty, Nick Drake-ish cassette-gems you might find in a dead archivist’s apartment. Thankfully, his sophomore effort The Wild Hunt doesn’t add any production gloss to announce itself as his U.S. label debut on the Dead Oceans label.
Mostly, this is more of a good thing: The same Swedish dreamscape populated by the same American ghosts—now draped in an early morning fog and underscored by a steady current of homesickness. Though Matsson has already proven himself to be a great tunesmith, a large part of the beauty here lies in the ambient details. A sharp intake of breath or parting of the lips before a sung verse; a faint glimmer of piano notes behind a finger-picked chord progression; a quietly chucked banjo.
Listen closely enough to the Nico-esque “The Drying of the Lawns” and you can just barely hear Matsson tapping his foot on a plank floor to keep rhythm. Sure, there’s comfort in this. But the fact that the album rewards close listening—that it pays you for being fully present in the moment-by-moment unfolding of its songs—is more emblematic of the existentialism that defines this music. “I left my heart to the wild hunt a coming,” Matsson sings in the title track. “I live until the call. And I plan to be forgotten when I’m gone.”
Death, however quietly, lurks around every corner in these songs, and the real maturity of this record lies in his balanced view of the fear and anxiety, which constantly eat at its edges—his ability to see them not just as paralytic forces, but as feelings that help us circumscribe what poet Jack Gilbert calls “our fresh particularity of difference.”
“Death and leaving are obviously common subjects,” Matsson says. “It’s not that I want to kill myself or something. It might sound that way sometimes, but it’s actually quite the opposite of that. It’s about a point of tension where you can feel most alive and inspired because in this tension, you always have the opportunity to walk away, to disappear. When life is hard, you think about the easy ways out. You’re on that edge all the time. But there and then, a lot of good stuff can happen.”
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