Let’s get this over with: Kristian Matsson sounds a bit like Bob Dylan. It’s the sparse acoustic instrumentation and the literate songwriting, for sure; but above all it’s the nasal bray, the insistent attack of his vocal delivery. The comparison no doubt drives Matsson, who records under the moniker The Tallest Man On Earth, crackers by now – but it isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
Which is a shame, because that reedy voice is actually a more supple instrument than Dylan’s. Regular readers of this here blog will know that I bow to no one in my conviction that Dylan’s voice is uniquely expressive; but Matsson’s voice is more sinuous – it seems to slip between registers more easily. This in part dictates – or aids – his songwriting, which focuses as much on melody as it does on lyric (again the comparisons with His Bobness both fall short and are exceeded). Thanks to Anna’s brother, Joe, I’ve been investigating Tallest Man on Earth’s second album, The Wild Hunt, since Christmas, and for melodic invention amongst many other things it is to 2010 what Paul Curreri’s California was to 2009 – too late to be in with the shot it deserved at my year’s best picks.
Take one of The Wild Hunt‘s stand-out tracks, ‘King of Spain’: from searing vocal to deceptively deft acoustic guitar, from its memorable tune to its mordant, droll lyrics, this is a mature but also hugely enjoyable song. It reminds of Mountain Goats at their best in a way: a clever, complex song which is also raucous and funny. In other ways, though, Matsson is much sweeter than John Darnielle: ‘Love is All’, another of the album’s highlights, is as sprightly as its title makes it sound, with a skipping beat and an earworm of a sing-song riff.
Refreshingly, there’s nothing portentous about this plain little record – “I plan to be forgotten when I’m gone”, sung several times during the album’s title track, is not a line you’ll hear from the Pete Dohertys of rock music, for instance – and yet so good is the songwriting that the limited palette of acoustic guitar and voice never gives the impression of treading water.
Scandinavia has played host to a curious number of rather fine songwriters in the Americana vein – from Thomas Dybdahl to Jose Gonsalez – but Matsson, with this record which builds in the memory and develops on every listen, may have outstripped them all. Simply special.