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The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt

on April 08, 2010, 8:00am
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On the opening track of the The Wild Hunt (also called “The Wild Hunt”), Kristian Matsson sings that he “plans to be forgotten when he’s gone,”a statement that seems insincere for any person who would go through the trouble of committing a song to tape, anyone who would sculpt a  statue, even anyone who would write a music review. But making you feel in the know is not Matsson’s intent, as he is the sort of artist who keeps half his hand face down, only to be flipped when, and if, he is ready. This playful bait and switch begins from the initial reaction you have at first exposure, because no doubt you have just been introduced to Matsson as The Tallest Man on Earth.

Like the above line (not really a “plan”– more a fear or even a logical expectation), Matsson’s moniker also rings reconcilably false. It is an obvious fabrication (he is actually a pretty small guy); however, when you hear him perform and especially when you first see him, it is difficult to imagine another human being standing taller. If he is planning to be forgotten, well, he better stop trying so hard to make an impression.

On his new album, TTMOE does little to change to the overall acclaim for his sound or his mastery of the folk tradition that can be traced back as far back as you would like. What The Wild Hunt does show is  that there are still ways to play alone with a guitar and sound fresh. From the tradition that includes the name you will read in every review of Matsson’s work (Bob Dylan), it takes a true talent to get anyone to pay attention to an acoustic singer/songwriter. It takes even more talent to keep their attention. Matsson (along with Jose Gonzalez) represents  the highest class in this art form – someone who can make you forget that folk songs have existed for longer than the time since this album began spinning.

“The Wild Hunt” starts the album off on an unexpected note; in fact, it isn’t until the third track, “Troubles Will Be Gone”, that we hear the deliberate and focused fingerpicking that dominated Shallow Grave. “The Wild Hunt” recalls flapper era jazz (the sound later resurfaces in “The Drying of the Lawns”), another American staple that the Swedish singer, like he has with folk music, effortlessly makes his own.  This melody and vocal shift is not drastic, but will throw freak-folk comparisons his way (to go with the Dylan ones) and channels the warble of Devendra Banhart scarily well. This leads into “Burden of Tomorrow”, the most instantly infectious song on the record, similar in pace and placed at the same album-point as Shallow Grave’s “The Gardener”. Tracks like this one and “You’re Going Back” make The Tallest Man On Earth a satisfying listen, keeping him from being one-note and leaving you fulfilled for a good while afterwards.

Lyrically, The Wild Hunt balances revealing lines with carefully cryptic details, often times giving more an idea of what the song is about rather than a definitive knowledge.  The refrain is usually the reveal, casting light on the overall sentiment of the song (guess what “Troubles Will be Gone” is about?), but it is in deciphering the rich imagery and detail that Matsson reveals himself as a poet worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Dylan. First single “King of Spain” plays with the wealth of vocabulary that Spanish culture offers and comes across as a fun-spirited fantasy straight through to the closing verse line of “because you named me as your lover, I thought I could be anything”. It flips the cards of the song and paints a touching tribute to the kind of lover that makes you feel capable of anything, their love being the most unattainable thing imaginable in your eyes.

Album closer “Kids on the Run” then spins the record on its head, offering a piano ballad that forgoes the usual details to tell of lovers’ past mistakes and the inability to move on, where lovers never quite grow up and never quite stop hurting each other. Like a number of also great albums (Sound of Silver, Get Behind Me Satan, and Have One On Me), the piano-driven crescendo brings the album a closing that seems both natural and ambitious. Matsson will try for the hard notes at any given moment, but never has the entire gesture of a song been so great from him. He not only pulls it off– it might be the most beautiful song he has written yet.

And while the voice, the recording style, the lyrics, and the songwriting all excel in The Wild Hunt, it is the passion of the delivery that makes it an unforgettable album. Matteson delivers every sound like it is uncontrollable, like it is the music itself that demands to be played. So while his aforementioned misdirection may work with the uninitiated, those of us who have heard The Wild Hunt will come to expect the classics he seems to produce so easily. These are not the types of things people forget over time, though I’m sure he will miss the days where failure seemed likely and any success was unexpected. Hell, it will probably make him even better.

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