Fingerpickin’ like a bat out of hell and with a voice like Bob Dylan’s 49th night terror, Sweden’s Kristian Matsson, a.k.a. The Tallest Man On Earth, came out of nowhere with 2008’s stunningly tense Shallow Grave. Well, technically, I guess he came out of Sweden. Anyway, that record was Dylan on Benzedrine; Matsson’s fierce, blood-curdling yelps and fiery guitarisms turned a frightfully familiar formula into something new and exciting. Lyrically, dude made even less sense than Bobby D., beating around every kind of bush with strangely-brewed metaphors and brain-frying Swenglish out the wazoo. Was it a case of skewed translation, or was Matsson some mad, brilliant poet? Both seemed logical; both were probably true.
On The Wild Hunt, Matsson has scaled back his attack, for better and for worse. Right off the bat the record is infinitely more tender, less urgent than Shallow Grave. The Tallest Man’s erstwhile peaky, crackling folk assault has been abandoned in favor of a more studio-clean sound: Lady Gaga it ain’t, but it is more spacious, more refined. The plus side of this new direction is that Matsson sounds more focused and confident in his songwriting. The flip of that is, of course, the danger is gone — the reckless, derailed mood that permeated much of Shallow Grave has been replaced with musical solidity. I’m not gonna go so far as to call it boring, ’cause it ain’t, but there is a loss of some of the primal agitation that made Grave a personal fave. This is bound to happen: artists grow, the music changes.
But thankfully, at the core, it hasn’t really changed much; Matsson is still one hell of a melodist. The album’s opener and title track sets the stage for an album that largely exists in the gentle, charming cracks between straight-up acoustic twang and a playful sort of nu-folk. Lest anyone dare apply the dreaded “freak folk” tag to The Tallest Man, Matsson plays it naturally cool, way too fundamental to be futuristic. Lyrically, he is unassuming: ”I plan to be forgotten when I’m gone,” he croons over an easy-rider acoustic rhythm, his voice calmer, more traditionally tuneful than ever before. It’s that kind of record throughout; even when he delivers self-mythologizing lines like ”Rumor has it that I wasn’t born/ I just walked in one frosty morn” (on “Burden of Tomorrow”), it’s so pretty that it still manages to come across as unpretentious. Anyway, self-mythologizing is a part of Matsson’s whole deal; after all, he named his project The Tallest Man On Earth. Here, though, it takes a humanist turn, in songs like “Thousand Ways,” where he declares, ”I have lived for ages/ I’m a thousand turns of tides/ I’m a thousand wakes of springtime/ And a thousand infant cries.”
Matsson’s lyricism is deeply compelling, as is often the case with ESL songwriters: like foreign-born novelists who choose to write in English, his choice of words is frequently and enchantingly abstruse. This phenomenon was even more obvious on Shallow Grave, where Matsson wrote about deserts disappearing into eyes and the like; on The Wild Hunt, it takes odd forms, like the awkwardly wailed ”Don’t go that fuckin’ way” on “You’re Going Back.” Elsewhere, it births brevity that approaches the profound, like this gem from “King of Spain”: ”I am not from Barcelona/ I am not even from Madrid/ I am a native of the North Pole/ And that can mess up any kid.” Rarely does Matsson sing in obviously autobiographical terms, but here he comes close.
The Wild Hunt is a very good record, but it’s not perfect. The album’s second half, though unarguably beautiful, runs together like an extended 60s folk mix. Dylan has been all over The Tallest Man’s sound from the start, but he has never quite overtaken it as strongly as on The Wild Hunt. On one hand, it’s nice to see Matsson identifying and embracing his sound so adeptly; on the other, it begs, perhaps, for some degree of experimentation. The album’s closer, “Kids on the Run,” is as close to a shakeup as we’ve seen from The Tallest Man; it’s a lumbering, pretty piano ballad that is more Tom Waits than Woody Guthrie. It works, but it feels a bit forced, a bit too intentional in its different-ness. Listening to it makes me want more fingerpickin’, more howling, more of what Matsson does best. And then I realize that sometimes experimentation is overrated, that sometimes playing it safe yields a pretty damn gratifying result.