It’s almost like after 40 years, someone, a Swede singing in English no less, has finally reached down and picked up the mantle thrown down by Dylan when he recorded Nashville Skyline in 1969 and there suspended his silver-tongued folk/rock poet phase which has never been surpassed by him or anyone since, though there have been plenty who’ve come close. This is total hyperbole of course. As if I’ve heard every singer-songwriter who ever picked up a guitar and wrote poetry. Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man On Earth, is a freewheelin’ poet who also happens to be an amazing ragged voiced singer and extremely talented folk guitarist with what seems to be the perfect sensibility in DIY attitude. We tend to think Dylan when we hear him mainly because of the voice – it’s the most immediately accessible point of reference.
This six track EP was his first release on the Jagjaguwar label, which probably didn’t sell much on first issue. The original came with only five tracks. What I’m writing to here is the reissue out in June 2011, and of course I’m reviewing it retrospectively in that, like the bulk of Tallest Man fans, I discovered him through The Wild Hunt, his brilliant second album from 2010. It then became imperative to pick up everything he’s recorded, and so herein begins a new catalogue project.
It’s just voice and guitar across these six songs, crisply recorded, with the occasional touch of mic-level distortion. The tunes are exquisite, especially those in the haunting minor key, and Matsson’s voice is melodic and utterly unique – like a rough piece of obsidian pushed across concrete. He has a few odd vocal tics such as adding a rising ‘oh’ at the end of lines. Tunes become familiar quickly, and you can hear similarities and repetitions of melodic phrasings across all his work, but we’ll forgive him that because the songs are so compelling. And then there’s the lyrics. Matsson’s a nature poet at heart (see the song titles below – rain, hills, stream). He draws on the elements to symbolize the unusual and complex passions and emotions that make these such powerful yet simple-seeming songs. You can probably tell I’m gushing. This is outright fandom on my part. It’s exciting falling for a new artist who hits you in all the right places. Forty-five revolutions a minute, Bumstead, ready the rubber band and let fly that vinyl.
It Will Follow The Rain…opens with a fast, delicate very fiddly little arpeggio piece. “Have you ever / Seen the far side / Of a mountain / Swallow the sky / … / Have you ever / Seen a locust / Clean his wings right / After a plague / … / Have you ever / Seen your baby / Getting caught by / The lonesome wind / … / Yes it will follow the rain / I said oh my friend / It will follow the rain.” So the song is made up of a series of questions (‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ anyone?) in the “Have you ever…?” vein. The guitar part repeats, until a point towards the end where Matsson sings the first verse again with just four slow strums, pause, and back into finger picking. Sounds a lot like Nick Drake with a more brittle guitar sound. I wish I could render the textual equivalent of a melody right here, but trying to say anything about these Tallest Man songs reminds me of that oft-quoted apothegm: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” So true, so true, especially right now. About the best I can do is offer a few words on what I think the songs mean. So there’s these magic moments he describes in his questions – like the ones quoted above, only I haven’t quoted all the lyrics, because the questions extend into complex metaphors, very specific things, making you think about the uniqueness of every event. For example I could say, “Have you ever felt the cool breeze of an aircon on a summer’s day?” Or I could continue, “…on a summer’s day after the rain when a sparrow lands at your door?” And so on. And, you know, these things—man, don’t you know? Yeah, that’s right – they follow the rain. That’s when you notice the special things, right after the rain. Like I said Matsson’s a poet.
Walk The Line…syncopates tight finger picking against regular strums. Song tells the story of a man telling the singer, “You bring me down, oh child.” Seems the singer’s lyrics are a bit too doomy for this fellow, things such as “Little angels growing wings of pain,” and “From the day we’re lifted / We know we’ll have to burn.” And this doesn’t make this other chap too happy. “He said you / Bring me down / Oh child,” to which Matsson replies, “I ain’t gonna walk the line,” without apology. It has a very catchy but subdued minor chord melody. So the singer keeps saying he ain’t gonna walk the line, meaning he’s gotta do and say what he’s gotta do and say and if you can’t handle it, tough. Then four times he pleads, “don’t shoot me down.” Ever so briefly we hear Matsson’s wicked little falsetto. In this song, Matsson can fly; he is gonna fly, it’s like his statement of intent as an artist. And in his flying he’s gonna see things and tell the truth, as he flies right through thunder, lightning and rain, like an eagle, avoiding bullets and arrows, and he will continue to do this until the day he comes crashing down. “From the speed of my body / Earth will pile up my bones / From my little skull / Oh just a little whisper comes.” This is very much Matssons ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.’ Reminds me of those lines from Dylan, “And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it / And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.” I’d say this is my favourite song here.
Steal Tomorrow…even faster finger picking still, with another killer tune. “Well I give you all my rain / I give you all my sweet horizons / And another son to blame.” Chorus goes, “I will dance and sway / While you dream away / Bring your curtain down / Then I’ll burn this town / It’s just a way / To steal tomorrow.” There’s a little bit of distortion on his sibilants here which is annoying, but the rawness of his voice and the crystal clear guitar playing, warts and all, is exciting. “Hell I’m guilty of the crime / But like a bird above the Alcatraz / I’m whiter than your gown / But I have to say / It’s just a way / To steal tomorrow.” Difficult to say what this one’s about. I’m gonna stab in the dark here and say that “stealing tomorrow” means living in the present, and living in the present is what he does, as an artist, a musician. He’s guilty of stealing tomorrow, but it’s not really a crime. There’s a few biblical references in these songs. The song before this one had angels in it. I’m starting to detect various religious tropes in here intermingled with myth.
In The Pockets…much louder, full on strumming, with lovely little descending figures. His vocal sounds more like it does on The Wild Hunt. “On the street where silent people walk / I’m a-gonna build a church and let the preacher know / That this is where my prayer could come to die / Forever see my curses spread out on the ground,” and then the chorus: “Deep in the pockets of your sun / You can see what I am on / And by the presence of my eyes / You could see why / I took a lonely flight.” So again, he’s singing about his flight, a lonely flight, the lonely singer-songwriter routine. Strumming is really loud and clear, but fast, and complex and syncopated and very melodic. All the songs here are between three to four minutes. Quite short, punchy, fast, acoustic guitar. “Deep on the bottom of a lake / You could watch me as I wave.” Some cool falsetto parts here, and then, “Yes in the depths where the silent rivers flow / I’m gonna build a boat and let the customs know / That this is not a sea that will behave / Oh watch me as I drift away / I don’t want to be saved.” My second favourite song here I guess. But the one I least understand. The last lyric goes, “You could see why / I took a lonely flight.”
Over The Hills…strumming again. “Well I could hear it / When the river’s crying / And I could see it through the fog / And I could reach into magnetic fields now / To steal a hammer and a gun / For every engine down / Yes I will find a new.” And the chorus: “I’m goin’ over the hills now / I’m goin’ into the blue.” Then we get, “And I will tell it to the mighty wind / That I have betrayed it once again.” Strumming is more minor key this time. Quite fast. Jangling, ringing, insistent, urgent strumming. Song not quite as catchy. “And I will highjack every morning railroad / Perhaps I’ll die upon that train/ … / And I would bounce the moon / On the earth if I could / I’m goin’ over the hills now / I’m goin’ over for good.” He’s going over the hills, he’s launching his career here, he’s gonna take off, only it’s a plane he’s on this time, “For every engine down I will find a new” and “a propellor in my hand.” Yes, he’s off to do some wondrous things like: “For every child in tears / I’m gonna throw down a hand” and, “Every morning I will push / And bring the sun above our head.” Seems to me we have another flying song, another song of intent of what he’s going to achieve with his art. I have to mention his phrasing on all of these songs is great. Like how well he makes all of these lyrics fit into his rhythm. He’s not quite in that amazing elastic territory Dylan was able to reach, but still, this is the kind of stuff that gets into your head.
Into The Stream…love this, tune is beautiful. Sort of strumming and finger picking mixed together, beautiful minor key melody in the bridge which sounds so difficult to play and indeed he fumbles it in places. “I’ve set the rain / To be cold and hard / I’ve set the sun / To be bright and sharp / To wake you up / From your hollow dream / I’ll shake your bed / With a thunder strike/ From my hand.” In fact, this song is included on his first album, Shallow Grave. The melody is so good. I’m gonna make a bold statement, but I reckon Kristian Matsson is going to be huge in a few more years. He’ll just go from strength to strength. It’s just him and a mouthful of exquisite poetry about … life really. About being born, being human, and death. Romanticism in the Wordsworthian sense. Some wicked slides here too between chords. Love it.
Typing to this and thinking about the meaning and trying to catch all the lyrics at the same time was like juggling 18 balls. I had to play the record through four times to write this commentary up. The feeling I got from the lyrics was that this EP is a kind of manifesto for where he’s going to take his muse. He’s certainly got a way with words. I wouldn’t quite put him in the Dylan camp yet, because the lyrics can sometimes be a little hard to catch, either because of the quick phrasing but also because of his accent and razor-edge voice. Those early Dylan albums catch you out because you can hear every word loud and clear. Where lyrics are hard to catch though, I tend to let ‘em sort of melt into the music and just enjoy the songs for their feel. He’s one of those singers where you catch bits of lyrics, choruses, or certain stand-out lines, really clearly, but not the whole song, so it’s quite difficult to hold it all in your mind and form a picture, unless you sit down and write it all out, which is something I haven’t done since my teenage years.
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