Release Date: Jun 12, 2012
Record label: Dead Oceans Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter, Indie Folk
Kristian Matsson (aka The Tallest Man on Earth) creeps out from underneath his forebears’ shadows on his third album, There’s No Leaving Now. The Swedish singer-songwriter’s voice was downright stentorian on 2008’s Shallow Grave and 2010’s The Wild Hunt. The latter’s electrified companion EP, Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird, serves as a jumping off point for Matsson’s current full-length.
Review Summary: His consistency is becoming a little frightening. I'm starting to get a little bit worried about my relationship with Kristian Matsson's music. It reminds me of being 14 and hearing Amnesiac for the first time, and getting that sinking feeling when you realize that a previously impervious artist, one that you thought were incapable of doing anything bad, had it in them to be mediocre.
On “1904”, the early single from the Tallest Man on Earth’s third LP, There’s No Leaving Now, Kristian Matsson’s grit-flecked tenor warbles on about a mysterious event that “shook the Earth in 1904.” What could the event be? Here are a few likely candidates. On January 16, 1904, the first major bodybuilding competition in the U.S. was held at Madison Square Garden.
Is there any more rightly despised genre of music than singer/songwriter? For most listeners, the very mention of the genre brings to mind some awful hours spent trapped in a college coffee shop, trying to stomach the "great new singer" a significant other is obsessed with. Too often, the genre is populated by earnest musicians who lack a good voice, good lyrics, interesting instrumentation, or some combination of the three. Above all, singer/songwriters are...well, they're usually boring.
Around the time he put out his sparse and arresting second album, 2010's The Wild Hunt, Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson also released a cover of "Graceland". Matsson's music as the Tallest Man on Earth gives off an uncanny, hard-to-place air, caught between his native surroundings and the American folk he reveres. But to hear him tackle that familiar melody put some of the strange and hard-to-pin-down appeal of his music into focus.
The Tallest Man on Earth has carved out his own little niche of winsome and slightly raspy folk-indie-pop over the years of the 21st century, so little wonder that There's No Leaving Now continues that approach well enough. He's a bit of an acquired taste, not unattractive, but still a touch one-note, so There's No Leaving Now succeeds best when he breaks out of that mode of one enjoyable enough ingredient constantly reused, or at least tempers it more thoroughly than at other times. The brisk speed and sense of soft mournfulness mixed with empathy on songs like "Revelation Blues" set his expected mode as ever, while also allowing for such good lines as "Sometimes it's just roses dying too young.
Kristian Matsson deals largely in the abstract, but for a concrete idea of what There’s No Leaving Now sounds like, imagine Bob Dylan getting whiplash from a taste of Scandinavian air. A Dylan disciple since in utero, the Swedish-born Matsson’s songs reimagine Dust Bowl blues through a lo-fi lens. They also project coldness rather than intimacy, the floods of reverb taking on bizarrely inhuman shapes.
Using little more than a guitar, his voice and a handful of abstract, image-rich lyrics, Swedish troubadour Kristian Matsson (aka the Tallest Man on Earth) doesn't lean on the thrill of the new. Instead, he stays rooted in a folk tradition that stretches back decades and continents. Any flashy moments that arise in his music usually come when his gritty, road-weary voice erupts into triumphant, expressive glory, particularly breathtaking during his live shows.
Saddled with the obligatory Dylan comparisons bestowed on anyone with a guitar and a tangential lyrical style, the Tallest Man on Earth releases his third album, There’s No Leaving Now, without doing much to evade that association. But the Swedish singer-songwriter has more in common with Bon Iver, a companion in the gentle muddling of country, blues, and folk, and with whom he shared a formative 2008 tour. Both mush their influences down into something that’s well-formed but simplistic, a smoothie-like concoction that’s easy to consume.
A third album finds Swedish songwriter Kristian Matsson (aka Tallest Man on Earth) considerably more comfortable than he was on either 2008's Shallow Grave or 2010's The Wild Hunt – and unfortunately, by extension, a little tame. Where Shallow Grave began with a resolute rattle ('I Won't Be Found') and The Wild Hunt with a gorgeously naïve declaration of abandon, There's No Leaving Now opens with a pair of calm, confident tracks that, while pleasingly lilting, have none of the thirst and urgency we've come to expect from Matsson's voice. Perhaps it's just that these songs' comparatively modest melodic patterns don't really allow his vocals to keen and keel over as they used to, or perhaps it's simply that we're now accustomed to what was once a startling tone – coruscating yet somehow comforting (and all too often, unimaginatively, compared to Dylan).
There was a concerted effort to not use Bob Dylan and Kristian Matsson, a.k.a. The Tallest Man On Earth, in the same sentence when Matsson broke out with his 2010 album The Wild Hunt. The comparisons, while vocally and musically obvious, proved (and still do prove) too facile and tenuous to totally work. However one thing that is worth noting is the juxtaposition of Dylan’s and Matsson’s album output early in their careers.
At this rate, Kristian Matsson will likely go electric in 2014, turn to country in 2017, discover gospel in 2027, and unplug again sometime in 2039. And if he’s really serious about the whole Dylan thing, he will crash his motorcycle in 2015, get a divorce in 2025, convert to Christianity in 2027, and contract a lung fungus in 2042. As a musician, he’ll never live up to his inspiration.
After a total of four highly acclaimed albums and EPs, it might be expected that the Tallest Man On Earth (aka Kristian Matsson) might be feeling the need to expand his sound beyond simply his voice and acoustic guitar. But then again, why mess with a good thing? There's No Leaving Now is another sweetly concise collection of ten songs by the eloquent Swede, whose nationality remains brilliantly masked by a Midwestern twang. And it's that voice that continues to be Matsson's best tool.
Kristian Matsson seems permanently abstracted; he only ever sings about emotional transformation, nature and dreams. We’ve been led to believe that he’s some sort of puissant, raw and thrilling Dylan-esque troubadour, evoking bucolic, emblematic imagery and intrinsic, indecipherable obscurity. But on this, his third album, he’s taken it too far: there’s too much imagery, and too many murky metaphors.