The Tallest Man On Earth, The Wild Hunt, 2010

I read a few reviews of The Wild Hunt when it got released in 2010, saw the name ‘Dylan’ mentioned a lot, played through the 90 second samples on iTunes and was immediately sold. Ordered myself a copy of the vinyl, got quickly hooked and hunted down a vinyl copy of Shallow Grave too.  Shallow Grave is great but I prefer The Wild Hunt only because I got into it when it came out. The production here is much cleaner, especially on the guitar, and his voice is stronger, a bit more bass, not quite as tinny as Shallow Grave and the Tallest Man EP. He also sounds looser here and the songs where he strums have the most amazingly cool rhythms.

So The Tallest Man is easily one of my favourite new artists in the past few years. His songs are super melodic, and the fingerpicking is phenomenal. His voice has all these little crackles and ripped spurts and sighs that are full of naked wonder. Here he seems more confident than ever, and I would say that The Wild Hunt also contains his two catchiest songs to date (for me at least) ‘The Wild Hunt’ and ‘King Of Spain’ but that’s not to denigrate any of the others. Yet again, his use of figurative language leaves the songs reeling with possibility. I tend to catch lines that I like and perhaps that’s what I’ll do here – refrain from quoting too many lyrics but just quote the lines that stand out for me. Trying to figure out what Tallest Man songs are about is a fraught activity that tends to play second fiddle to just enjoying the songs for the intense singing and beautiful melodies. Yet, how do you put into words the sound of an emotion that only music can carry? This is why the Romantics placed music as the highest art form—it transcends language obviously, and is probably the least explainable thing in the universe. So allow me to blither out a song-by-song commentary in my usual haphazard way and hope that I uncover an angle or perspective with which to reveal something about these ten fiercely spirited songs.

The Wild Hunt…opens with a languid kind of strum that quickly begins jaunty, gets louder, with a little bit of piano in the background. His voice comes on full on, loud over top of the guitar, clear as crystal. I love these opening words: “There is a crow moon comin’ in where you keep looking out / It is the hollow month of March now sweeping in.” The Wild Hunt is a European myth about some phantom horse riders who come riding through the countryside and take your life.  Reminds me of that poem by Yeats, ‘The Hosting of the Sidhe.’ Says Wikipedia, “Mortals getting in the path of or following the Hunt could be kidnapped and brought to the land of the dead.” And he’s kind of using the myth here to sing about accepting his mortality. Here’s a verse that explains that: “And I will sleep out in the glade just by the giant tree / Just to be closer when my spirit’s pulled away / I left a nervous little boy out on the trail today / He’s just a mortal to the shoutin’ cavalcade.” It’s kind of like the feeling you get when you’re a kid and you read these kind of stories. You’re sort of afraid for awhile that you might fall victim. But now it’s like he’s grown up and he’s not afraid any more. In fact he almost seems to be issuing a challenge to the hunters in the chorus: “I left my heart to the wild hunt a’coming / I live until the call / And I plan to be forgotten when I’m gone / Yes I’ll be leavin’ in the fall.”  It’s super melodic  but slightly haunting, and you can’t help singing along after you’ve heard it for the second time. Probably my favourite Tallest Man song at this point in time (November 2011).

Burden Of Tomorrow…this is one of those where you get swept up in the wicked rhythm guitar part. Love this verse: “Oh but rumor has it that I wasn’t born / I just walked in one frosty morn / Into the vision of some vacant mind,” and then this line, “Oooh once I held a pony by its flagging mane.” He pushes that harsh rasp of a voice hard through some parts of this. “Oh hell but I’m just a blind man / I drink my water when it rains / And live by chance among the lightning strikes,” and then, “Oh once I held a glacier to an open flame.” This is almost like ‘The Wild Hunt’ part two, because in this song, once again, he’s not afraid, and it’s as though he’s singing to fight the fear on behalf of someone else: “But I will fight this stranger that you should fear / So I won’t be a burden of tomorrow dear.” There’s a lot of nature in this song, like vines, frosts, ponies, the sun, plains, rain, glaciers, lightning strikes, wildcats and canyons. And it’s like these are all the kind of tests he’ll go through, all the trials he has to face so as not to be burdened by fear in the future. The imagery calls to mind Dylan’s ‘Spanish Harlem Incident’ and ‘Chimes of Freedom.’ The tune is gorgeous, and towards the end there’s an instrumental break where he seems to speed up as he takes a flight of fancy, sliding chords up and down the fretboard, before returning to the last verse. Exciting stuff.

Troubles Will Be Gone…incredibly complicated fingerpicking going on here which again, captures this insanely catchy melody while throwing about a thousand notes into the gaps. Again, his vocal performances on these songs are full of strength. Where some singers are often described as having ‘gravelly’ voices, Matsson’s voice is more like tiny shards of glass mixed with sharp stones. It almost frightening sometimes, especially when he raises the volume in one of his tiny moments of inspiration or passion, and it sounds like his voice is gonna rip right through the skin of your midrange woofers. I guess the place to look to find meaning is in the emotive abstract nouns. Here he sings of salvation, forgiveness, anger, the hope that “someday troubles will be gone,” the valley of surrender and in this song he’s “simply lost the words to tell you I’m afraid.” It’s a love song of sorts. Seems that he’s trying not to be angry at something that’s happened or rather he has been angry and now he needs forgiveness and salvation. Again a pot pourri of imagery: frozen highways, deers on golden highways, tracks, God, white knuckles, a hill, signs pointing to the far of the land. A jigsaw puzzle of lyrics that could be nutted out if you take the time.

You’re Going Back…is a very strummy number on what sounds like open chords. There’s a little bit of boom on the lower notes. “I could roll you to hell / I could swing from your heavens.” The voice here is even harder and sharper still. Part of the reason for that is the nasal effect, like he’s half singing through his nose. An amazing expletive in this song: “You said, ‘Driver, please, don’t go that fucking way’” – and man, that word ‘fucking’ is stretched twice as long as any other word in the line. In this song, someone, she, he, not sure, is going back, to where? To the city. The ambiguity is whether he’s really happy about that or not, but his joy sounds like irony – that’s my feeling because the way he sings it is not nice at all. It’s like he’s shredding his throat to get these words out. There are screams and ghosts in the forest, and this line, “But you dry me to tears / Like I cry from your laughter,” which sounds awfully cynical. It’s like they’ve been away together and had a terrible time, and don’t we all know all about that.

The Drying Of The Lawns…and it’s like the last song seems to continue into this one. Opens with the ominous line, “She said I cannot tell you why, she said I’m in a rush” and when we get to the chorus, it doesn’t sound good – she’s leaving: “And no this is not the summer dream she said / It’s just the drying of the lawns I’m going to leave out there.” Musically we’re back to a complicated arpeggio with a light tapping of his foot. The rhythm is more syncopated and drifty here, quite unlike anything else on Side One – more of a sombre, more thoughtful piece, in that the tune is not so obvious, more subtle, really unusual. And you know, one review I read referred to Matsson’s narrator as ‘detached’ and you do get that a lot in these songs. He’s not always the good guy here. He’s quite a lot more honest than Dylan ever was – Matsson tells us in no uncertain terms when he’s been a right cold bastard. In this line she’s talking to him: “I’m leavin’ because you don’t feel what you’re dreamin’ of.” But he ain’t giving up without a fight: “But I will stand down in the hallway with no thought to leave the set / Of a movie I will sure as hell not end just yet.” But that’s only one quick haphazard interpretation. The lyrics are so complicated – metaphors and symbols heaped on one another until the meaning becomes splintered into a broad spectrum of wild possibilities. Again, the key to understanding Matsson’s songs, in my humble opinion, is to begin with the emotive nouns and work your way through the metaphors from there.

King Of Spain…opens with a beautiful ringing tingling strum piece, really fast, and then it launches into the main rhythm, and man it’s fast. And the tune here is just the damndest catchiest thing you ever heard. “Well if youuuuu could reinvent my name / Well if yoouuuuu could redirect my day / I wanna be the King of Spain.” Lots of vocal tics and sighing curlicues in this song. “I never knew I was a lover / Just cause I steal the things you hide / Just cause I focus while we’re dancing / Just cause I offered you a ride.” He seems to be suggesting that this girl has fallen in love too quickly and he hasn’t, only, it’s like he’s making fun of her, by saying that if she’s that easily taken in – “well because you named me as your lover” – then he may as well be the king of Spain. Huge flamenco razzy flourish on the end. Lots of other neat lyrics in here too: “And I will settle in Pamplona / And I’ll provoke the bulls with words.” Yes, probably my second favourite Tallest Man song.

Love Is All…is the first really minor key type song here, quiet, low notes. “Well I walk upon the river like it’s easier than land / Evil’s in my pocket and your will is in my hand.” See what I mean? What on earth does that mean. It’s not exactly happy stuff. “My heart has learnt to kill / Oh mine has learnt to kill.” Perhaps he’s saying he’s a sensitive chap and when he gets screwed over he lashes back viciously. And that could be why the song is so sensitive and delicate. “Oh I said I could rise from the harness of our goals / Here comes the tears / But like always I let them go, just let them go.” Does he mean he does or doesn’t cry? Hard to say. In fact everything in this song, from the opening line, is difficult for him. A song about the difficulty of love.

Thousand Ways…is another really minor key number. The arpeggio melody is really unusual, very delicate with little pips. The stanzaic structure is almost identical to ‘Love Is All.’ The tune here is more subdued, the notes are all within one or two chords by the sounds of it, and he sort of keeps it all at the same level. There’s a lot of ‘thousands’ in this song: “a thousand turns of tides … a thousand wakes of springtime and a thousand infant cries.” Later, we get, “a thousand years … a thousand leaves in autumn and a thousand ways to try.” And I love this verse: “I bend my arrows now in circles and I shoot around the hill / If I don’t get you in the morning, by the evening I sure will / By the evening I sure will.” He seems a bit weary in this song, having lived a thousand years. He tells us (or her) that “You ought to know / That the dark in what I’ve always been, it will not ever go.” Another dark love song, of sorts. Good tune though.

A Lion’s Heart…again, lots of delicate fingerpicking. The way his voice rises and falls makes this sound like a classic ballad, like a song you’ve known your whole life. Like these lines for instance: “In that land there’s a winter / In that winter’s a day / In that day there’s a moment when it all goes your way” and each line rises in this gorgeous melody. Chorus: “And you know it’s a lion’s heart / That will tumble and tear apart / When he’s coming down the hills for you.” Interesting, because in ‘Thousand Ways’ we had a line about how “the mighty heart will sing” and now there’s a lion’s heart that’s coming for you. And there’s a verse here that sort of encapsulates a lot of Matsson’s lyrics in one fell swoop. “But can you still now remember who’s been hiding up there? / Through his howling at twilight all his songs of despair? / Do you remember the caller of a black and white crime? / Well he lives by that memory and falls from his mind.” He’s howling all his songs of despair because of some crime, a memory that he can’t erase. And this feeling is indicative of so many of Matsson’s songs, where he’s always guilty. There’s a tremendous, painful amount of guilt in these songs. Songs like this one where the musical parts are more subdued still have great melodies, but they’re carried more in the vocal.

Kids On The Run…great way to go out – on piano. A really reverberant piano, like he’s got the echo pedal pressed firmly down and recorded it in a hall. This song is unlike anything else he’s done, not just because it’s entirely on piano, but the vocal style is slower and more anthemic, except that his voice doesn’t really lend itself to the word ‘anthem.’ Song seems to be about two young lovers who are perhaps too young to be doing whatever they’re doing, so they sneak off, and they’re full of idealism, they’ll be together forever. But again, the guilt thing: “But will we ever confess what we’ve done?” The chiming piano melody gives it that feel that this is momentous stuff. Especially when the music stops for the chorus line, “Guess we’re still kids on the run,” and then the piano immediately starts up again. Then there’s a major chord change: “And til the terror of our time / Could forgive us as lovers / Oh, lets break some hearts.” This most reminds me of Suede, actually. Suede’s debut album, and a little bit of Dog Man Star. I’ve read somewhere that it channels Bruce Springsteen, but I guess that’s only in the lyrical idea of kids taking off to live their wild gasoline lives in freewheelin’ love.

Click once to expand, again to magnify

So, looking back at what I’ve written I hope this gives some indication of just how convoluted and terrifying these songs are to write about. He really makes his emotions into big things, but not in a dumb, say, Coldplay kind of way, or even the way Thom Yorke does it with his amazing voice, nor like Robert Smith’s over the top romanticism, but in the convoluted imagery that he fills with grit and guilt, doubt and fear, and power and strength and determination to get through it all. That’s what I get from these songs. And he would continue singing about the complications and trials of love affairs that never turn out to be what they promised, on the Sometimes The Blues Is Just A Passing Bird ep, later in the year.

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About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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