Shallow Grave is Kristian Matsson’s debut album and it’s a beauty. It comes on white numbered vinyl, only 1000 copies made, (however from December 2011 the vinyl is being re-pressed on the Dead Oceans label.) Here we have ten exquisite tunes constructed out of the fiddliest high speed fingerpicking I’ve heard since I first discovered Nick Drake’s equally complex compositions back in the mid 90s. Matsson replaces the otherworldliness of Drake’s dreamy pastoral modes, tones and vox with an earnest urgency of youthful yearning and strains of understated cynicism. His voice, unchanged from the first release, The Tallest Man On Earth EP, is still a brittle-dry piercing rasp that immediately makes you think of a young Dylan, but it’s the way he catches so many melodies on the edge of that razor-ragged voice that makes him stand out from the crowd; it’s what pricks your ears up, makes you take notice and think ‘what on earth is he singing about?’ And it’s an earthy thing too, nature fills his songs, yet there’s a gritty urban reality lurking beneath all the skies and rivers and mountains. It’s a desire to be free, a yearning to return to the earth that I hear in all of this, which makes Matsson something of a Rousseauian – the belief that civilization warps the fundamental goodness of human nature. But hey, we know humans have no fundamental nature to begin with and Matsson may be self-consciously centering his fragmented self in the frivolous field of a folksinger’s dream. This works for me.
The Tallest Man On Earth’s music is quite difficult to review in Bumstead real time. The songs are usually in the 2~3 minute range. They all use fancy melodies full of detail with equally complex and detailed lyrics that come at you like a stream of tactile text, the meaning spilling out in so many different directions you can only dumbstruckedly admire his ability to root out hitherto unnamed emotions and feelings. That’s music – why write about it at all? Dunno really. It’s a way of engaging, a kind of integration, sitting here touchtyping to the tender sound of fingers on steel strings, as if I’m learning to play the songs on a computer keyboard. That’s all really. Let’s not call this a review – let’s call it a textual cover version.
I Won’t Be Found…opens with an insanely catchy piece of fiddly fretwork. “Well if I ever see the morning ah / Just like a lizard in the spring / I’m gonna run out in the meadow ah/ To catch the silence when it sings /… / Well if I ever get to slumber / Just like a mole deep in the ground / Hell I won’t be found.” I like how in this song he states right up front that he just wants to be away from it all, he just wants some rest, some respite from modern life and he won’t be found. It’s a gorgeous melody. “I’ll build a freeway through this farce.” Short song ~2 minutes. There’s one verse I really like – “I’m gonna force the Serengeti ah/ To disappear into my eyes / Then when I hear your voices callin’ ah / I’m gonna turn just inside out.” So yeah, bugger off he says, I’m not here.
Pistol Dreams…has a more jaunty feel in its main riff. His voice is all treble, so much so that sometimes his ‘s’ sounds seem to cause the microphone to hiss. The chorus here goes, “So throw me in the fire now come on / So throw me in the fire now come on,” and then “’Cause we will paint our house with water / To have an outlet for the sigh / And as I never see the changes / I will be useless as I try / As I say baby don’t cry.” I can’t really make any sense out of that, but that’s okay. There’s a pleading quality mixed with defiance in his voice as if he’s issuing a challenge. As for ‘pistol dreams’ – what are those? It’s either an automatist’s streamlining of emotion or a solipsistic tale of expunged guilt, but as long as it means something to Matsson, and he sings it in the right key, it turns into our listening pleasure.
Honey Won’t You Let Me In…is the first one to use strum, but there’s something else in there, like background notes being plucked on a banjo or something. His voice is warmer here, lower, the strumming is pretty fast, the tune rises and falls in a wave formation with the rhythm of the words. “Now the dust will rise / Dress the open skies … / … It will always seem / Like a glowing dream / Now honey won’t you let me in.” This recalls Dylan in a way, but where Dylan was always trying to get out, Matsson sounds like he’s doing the opposite. One thing though about Matsson is that his lyrics always surprise. Often you feel like you can guess what his rhymes are gonna be, only they’re not, they’re about as far from guessing as possible. The last word of a line is always a way of distracting your attention as he launches into the next, and the communication becomes something very different to the idea of words as ‘sense’ with meaning. Take this: “As we cease to know where our fate will go / We won’t see the rivers tied up in the vines / Branches will untie every mumblin’ lie / Every frayed word in your lullaby is heard.” It’s tricky-dicky clever.
Shallow Grave…is played on a banjo, a tentative performance, but again, very fiddly with lots of pretty little notes mixed up between the lightly strummed rhythm. The chorus: “Cause when I dive into the water / I’ve raised the bottom to be saved / It’s just a shallow grave.” The first verse is all about the illusion of depth in surfaces. A shallow grave is one that’s been dug in a hurry to get rid of a body. There’s an interesting line at the end of the third verse though: “I found the darkness in my neighbor / I found the fire in the frost / I found the season once claimed healthy / Oh, I need the guidance of the lost.” He needs the guidance of the lost? Where does that leave us? Here, enjoying the amazing tune, that’s where – exquisite, melodic minor key stuff, shyer than what’s come before.
Where Do My Bluebird Fly…this sounds much more like Nick Drake with its haunting minor key melody. Then he does this piece where the notes do this little rising thing, – oh, I can’t explain it, but it’s steel-string precise, delicate, lovely. “Oh, you’re just a riddle in the sky / Oh, where do my bluebird fly?” is the chorus. I love this one a lot actually. It’s so fragile it feels like it’s going to fall apart at any moment. “With all this fever in my mind / I could aim for your kerosene eyes / You’re just a target in the sky / I said where do my bluebird fly.” Short songs eh. Side One clocks in at just under sixteen minutes.
The Gardener…strum strum strum, a little harder, so many steel notes ringing in a gorgeous harmony. Second verse: “I know the runner’s going to tell you / There ain’t no cowboy in my hair / So now he’s buried by the daisies / So I could stay the tallest man in your eyes, babe.” The story seems to be about jealousy. He’s on about leaks in telephones and lies, spies, private numbers, vicious calls, suspicion, frogs kissing hands and some other guy, but he wants to stay the king in his babe’s eyes. But this other guy—isn’t he a voice inside the narrator’s mind? He’s a gardener and a man. Great instrumental piece in the middle. His guitar playing leaves you stunned when you listen to it closely. It’s raw and unconcerned with perfection. This seems to be more of a major chord melody. Chiming and charming.
The Blizzard’s Never Seen The Desert Sands…is another played on banjo. “Ah, the blizzard’s never seen the desert sands / I will set the tempo low in my commands / Come follow down the highway once trailed by my golden calf / Oh, the blizzard’s never seen the desert sands.” Each verse follows this pattern where the first line of the quartet is repeated as the fourth line. There’s a line in this song about setting his house on fire. On ‘Pistol Dreams’, he wanted to be thrown in the fire and paint his house with water. How about that for a connection? The only thing I get from this song is that the title alludes to disconnect, disjunction, two things of which never the twain shall meet. It’s really short. Very plinkety plonk.
The Sparrow And The Medicine…back to arpeggio-style guitar. The vocal lines end on words that are stretched out. There’s a tap tap on something wooden for a beat. Sometimes you wonder if these are translations from Swedish perhaps. Like, the lyrics are so bizarre that they could be literal translations. But the lyrics are quite amazing. It’s sung to someone, a nameless ‘you’, who has a tranquilizer gun in her sweet pen (?), and here’s Matsson on sex: “When we’re covered by the thunder we’d become just one and feel the lightning shard / Spreading the wind apart.” And there’s more thunder in the next song too.
Into The Stream…is the same version I wrote about on The Tallest Man On Earth EP review. So I’ll just cut and paste that write up here: 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.” 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.
This Wind…strummed chiming figures, high strings and low strings while “Nobody knew what the raven would do / If he found it was rain in your hands / Like a dog set on wheels you will lope down the street / From the sound of the scratch in his claws.” This is a slower number. “You said ‘damn be this wind / It’s still moving on in / To the bones and the bed of my soul.’” And the line “Sure, it could look like dew, but they’re laughin’ at you / And they’ll send in the clowns when you’re lost.” I confess to being left lost by this album. And perhaps the clowns are all laughing at me. That’s okay. I don’t mind being laughed at. This song-by-song review has led me to this very understanding. We’re all lost in the post-modern capitalist landscape, but not many of us would care to admit it.
This is one of those albums, I don’t think anyone’s ever gonna ‘get’ on a literal level of meaning, and I suppose that’s not the point of music anyway. Matsson uses words just like they’re notes on a guitar—a long run of interesting syllables that express something if you’ve got the time to sit down and discern a multitude of possible meanings, but I’m not sure you’d want to. Is it any good then? Depends what your criteria are. It could probably leave some feeling dissatisfied – like we usually want at least something to hang our teeth on, but I think the point here is to try to get past that. It’s unusual and it messes you about while sneaking those tunes into your head. I’m gonna put this record away now in anticipation of reviewing the more enjoyable The Wild Hunt. I’ve been playing Shallow Grave for much of the past eight or nine months now, but I know I’ll be playing it my head for a while yet. I guess it does you leave feeling a bit lost, much like those clowns in ‘This Wind.’
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