Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Tallest Man on Earth: Shallow Grave (2008)

(Mexican Summer)


25 year-old Kristian Matsson was still recording in relative anonymity at the time of his enigmatic debut album, not a full-time musician and hesitant to reveal information about himself to the press. Over time he would become more personable and available -- sometimes almost uncomfortably so -- but in the magic and extremely valuable moment of Shallow Grave, we are permitted to hear what sounds uncannily like an archival recording of one man laid against the world: a romantic, a folksinger, a poet. Despite hailing from Sweden, Matsson delves with intensity into the lexicon of early 20th century rural America to craft songs that sonically are raw enough to be demos (which is to the record's advantage) and emotionally, lyrically, melodically come across with a timelessness to match, in the sense that they sound so impossibly well-worn, old, familiar that they feel like they already existed and Matsson simply found them lying, scrawled on walls in a tomb somewhere.

Crucially, however, Shallow Grave never sounds like pastiche or affectation. Matsson's love for classic folk is obvious, and his kindred connection to Bob Dylan -- in his obsession with outdated terminology and forgotten history as well as his ragged voice and spiritual purity -- may be mostly aesthetic but is still striking; and yet the brilliance of these songs is that they are new, singular and brashly individualist. At the time of the album's release, indie rock was at the tail end of a huge swell in popularity of revitalized folk-rock and alt-country, yet the Tallest Man on Earth's music stood sharply out as a "real" piece of Americana. You didn't even have to bother calling it sincere because it manifestly was everything it wanted to evoke. Rather than trading on distant recollections of beloved songcraft, it starts at square one, reintroduces us to a sound that has no sound, to an essence of communication that has no history or standards. The best folk albums from any period are those that are most difficult to date precisely; among the influx in the 2000s, I would argue that only Great Lake Swimmers' debut (recorded in an abandoned grain silo) and Iron & Wine's Our Endless Numbered Days sounded anywhere close to this ghostly, and its mystical permanence is more profound yet. A decade later, it has retained its freshness and urgency -- recorded in a manner that suggests Matsson had something to prove but only to himself -- and is one of the few records of the era whose moment does not seem to have passed, with new audiences constantly and reliably stumbling upon its ethereal beauty and experiencing the flood of unknown memories that quickly render it a part of their lives.

Matsson's lyrics vary in their focus and eloquence, an understandable stumbling block at times given that English is not his first language; his cleaner, more minimal words are superior to his Dylanesque bouts of word salad ("Pistol Dreams," "The Wind," the particularly intricate "The Sparrow and the Medicine") but those songs are no less lovely thanks to his invariably commanding melodies (a strength of his that Dylan couldn't ever really claim) and the way his unique accent and tone make sense of words that barely fit. The rest of the time, however, the clarity of his attack upon the songs and the tape as a performer (unheard elsewhere in his discography) is well matched by forcefulness as a writer. He plays the songs unaccompanied, with overdubbing only evident sporadically (the banjo-guitar interplay on "Honey Won't You Let Me In"); his vocals can be sweet and lilting, furiously engaged or, most often and effectively for these songs of escape and wandering, wounded and pensive. The literate but almost disembodied "I Won't Be Found" introduces him well, his voice full of frayed hope and his picking on one of his many odd guitar tunings truly gorgeous. He slows down the same riff later on the starkest and most goosebump-inducing of these songs, "Into the Stream," and there he completes the portrait, wailing over those chords now like a lost, broken man singing from the perspective of a vengeful or disappointed God but really only articulating his disappointment in himself, which is elemental and shakes the core of the ground opening in front of him as he stares out at it, strumming away.

For all their intimacy, these songs almost uniformly suggest a wide-openness of space and possibility, but already Matsson is positioning that minimally engineered sonic mood as counterpoint to words that are often oppressively bleak: the banjo-only title song is a suicide narrative on which Matsson's voice sounds distant, as if he's already too far away to be helped, but there's still a sense of the continuing world that goes on in perpetuity around his body. He sounds much more desperate and pleading on "Where Do My Bluebird Fly?", seemingly a story of a fraying partnership that also boasts some of his most strongly felt guitar work; there is the sense of so much history unstated, as though it's a personal communique. And the most "classic" of these songs, "The Blizzard's Never Seen the Desert Sands," a soaring journeyman anthem delivered also strictly on the banjo, is almost unsettling in its sense of total abandon ("the frightened little choirs they will sing"), though there is also of course the sense of classic unmoored freedom that comes from the idea of burning one's house and setting off.

In folk tradition, though, freedom is often code for lawlessness -- and we're forced to wonder if there was anyone else in that burning house, especially upon being confronted with the finest of these songs and the only competitor with "Love Is All" as Matsson's greatest work to date, "The Gardener," which boasts his most eloquent, confident lyric as well as the one most richly indebted to folk tradition, which it pointedly subverts. The troubling, magnetic tradition of the murder ballad so prominent and alluring in the annals of folk predates its American incarnation and is traceable to 17th century Europe; who knows whether that's one reason Matsson's cunning appropriation of the form is so convincing. What's fascinating, however, is his unique spin on the scenario -- he kills his competitor for his love and buries him in the garden, but in doing so he simply asserts the romantic pressure on everyone to clean themselves up to an almost illogical extent in the pursuit of prolonged partnership, the determination to be the best, tallest, most flawless for one's lover. More remarkable yet is the perfect structuring of the lyric with its keenly repeated motifs (the runner, the spy, the leak), brilliantly understated narrative and emotional crescendo, all of which Matsson captures viciously in his phenomenally dedicated vocal take and the hardest guitar playing on the entire record. The song is much more than merely an impressive exercise; it gets under your skin, into your bones and lives there, and the winking subversion comes from the strange joy with which Matsson delivers this wild story, which he clearly knows is especially startling as it seems to be the source of his pseudonym.

Since 2008, Matsson has steadily become more popular and his first three records exist as a kind of single piece; all seemed equally strong at the time, and all are terrific, but in retrospect Shallow Grave seems to be the one that manages to deliver a feeling and challenge specific to this artist alone. The others would be recorded more elaborately or professionally, and eventually with the fourth record a full band would be added, and it would be clear then that even as Matsson continued growing as a writer, his instincts as an arranger and performer were beginning to betray him. But a record like Shallow Grave puts an artist like Matsson in an unenviable position -- it is as close to the capturing of lightning in a bottle as you can really get in recorded music, and there is simply no way to decide to return to this well of inspiration, to record it in this specific manner, and the most major part of all, to find a way to express oneself without compromise while also striking up such universal catharsis in people that it's like some brand of sorcery. There's nothing I can say is "missing" in the subsequent Tallest Man on Earth records, which all contain striking melodies and songs so good you feel as if you've known them for years after the first time; but maybe that mystery that Matsson so painstakingly cultivated early on left him free in a way that is now impossible. Certainly Shallow Grave sounds like the work of somebody with nothing to lose, sometimes literally as on "Blizzard," but it also sounds like someone who feels protected enough to spin the knife back around on us. There's a threat, an unease, within this half-hour that's unlikely to return, but it doesn't need to. With barely a false note, it's a record that can be replayed endlessly, its thorniness and capacity to enchant, tease and warn totally undiminished by that nearly irresistible compulsion.

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