Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Tallest Man On Earth - There's No Leaving Now

Dead Oceans, 2012
Three and a half stars

There's always been a tendency in music criticism to compare new artists to classic ones, but in the past decade, that furor has increased with every new association. Nearly every review of The Gaslight Anthem's breakthrough album (2008's The '59 Sound) heralded Brian Fallon as the new Springsteen, and some people - a lot of people, actually - were seriously ready to crown Justin Timberlake the new "King of Pop" when he made FutureSex/LoveSounds in 2006. Amidst those and countless other examples, perhaps the most common parallel drawn was between the modern folkies, eager to prove themselves, and the granddaddy of their genre: Bob Dylan himself. Over the course of the last ten years, we've had a slew of "new Dylans," from Conor Oberst to Josh Ritter to Iron & Wine's Sam Beam, but never has the comparison been so spot on as it is when used in reference to Swedish-born troubadour Kristian Matsson and his moniker, The Tallest Man on Earth. With a pair of full-lengths and two EPs under his belt, Matsson's weather worn, nasal vocals, his ever-present acoustic guitar, and his lyrical songwriting have consistently evoked the sounds and aesthetics of Dylan's '60s folk. His terrific 2010 release, The Wild Hunt, could have easily fit alongside Dylan's early records, somewhere between The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are A-Changin', and even though he added some flourishes of electric guitar on Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird, the EP he released that same year, the overall sound and feeling of his music still fit in that same niche.

But Dylan was a visionary: he got bored with the limitations of folk music and consciously tore them down a mere three years into his career. Figures like that only come along once or twice in any given musical generation, and Matsson clearly prescribes more to the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach. There's No Leaving Now is a blend of the propulsive folk of The Wild Hunt and the more gentle atmospherics of Passing Bird, and while Matsson does move to multi-tracking here in order to add a bit more sonic variation into the palette (the title track is a piano ballad, reminiscent of "Kids on the Run" from the last record, while accents of pedal steel drift through many of the album's best moments), almost any of these songs could have fit on his past albums. That's not entirely a bad thing, since most of them are really quite good, but some fans may be disappointed that Matsson doesn't take a few more chances this time around. That said, opener "To Just Grow Away" is a tremendous reminder of Matsson's talent, both as a songwriter and as one of the most distinctive vocalists of his age, and it's the perfect reintroduction to his brand of predictable but pleasing folk music. The song bursts with lush orchestration and melodic splendor, and carries within it a welcoming familiarity, something that even this record's weakest songs manage to hold.

On initial listens, There's No Leaving Now comes across as an exceptionally gorgeous and charming record, just not a terribly memorable one. As often seems to happen with modern folk albums, there isn't enough variation in tempo or melodic structure here, and the songs end up blending together a bit as a result. "Revelation Blues," "Leading Me Now" and "1904," narrowly escape that fate, with good melodies and terrific vocals that save them from the fact that they share essential musical and structural qualities, but the elegiac "Bright Lanterns" elevates the proceedings noticeably. A pedal steel guitar formulates a stunning alt-country backdrop as Matsson's vocals rise and crack with emotional strain and nostalgic regret, and the result is a summer night song for the ages. The should-be-penultimate number, "Wind and Walls," is even better, offering up a slice of the more upbeat texture that made The Wild Hunt so indelible and giving Matsson one of his most affecting vocal moments on the bridge. The album loses its way a bit after that though, stumbling through the borderline-maudlin "Little Brother" and fumbling completely on the senselessly dull "Criminals," a pair of songs that derail the album's flow and render the sequencing questionable.

When The Wild Hunt closed with "Kids on the Run," it was a revelatory left turn for a guy who mostly just played in his comfort zone. Matsson traded his acoustic guitar for an out-of-tune piano, but the imperfection didn't matter: he banged on the keys and delivered a power ballad, and for a moment, it sounded like The Tallest Man on Earth could be more than a reliably solid (but not terribly interesting) folk act. A similar thing happens this time around with the haunting "On Every Page," which gives Matsson's top-notch guitar work one of its best displays on record. The song sounds completely raw and real, like he just sat down in his bedroom, pushed record, and it on the spot, and it's got the same kind of entrancing, wisdom-laced vocal delivery that Dylan had in spades. Again, it makes me wonder if there's more to Matsson as a songwriter and a musician than he puts on his records, but the difference this time around is that the set of songs that precedes it isn't that great. Matsson has always come across as a fairly limited songwriter, but the songs on The Wild Hunt were good enough, and more notably, had enough life in them to overcome that fact. There's No Leaving Now has a lot of great moments, but it also meanders and drags through a series of compositions that, while not necessarily bad, don't really stick out. Perhaps it's the kind of album that needs to be heard in a certain environment, or one that requires the listener to be in a specific mood (when I listened to it on a sweltering late night drive, I fell in love with every note I heard), but on the whole, I just think Matsson's formula is beginning to get old. There's No Leaving Now is still a good album, and may even make it onto my year-end list, but for next time around, I hope Matsson takes a leaf out of Dylan's book and slashes the boundaries that are holding him back.


  1. Finally gave this a shot with absolutely no idea what to expect and loved it upon the first listen. I missed this kind of "Dylanish" singer-songwriter stuff in today's music... I'm pretty sure I'll feature it on my AOTY list this year. :)

    I have yet to listen to The Wild Hunt properly.

    1. Glad to hear it, dude. And if you like this, chances are you'll like The Wild Hunt just as much...if not more.