Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Tallest Man on Earth: The Wild Hunt (2010)

(Dead Oceans)


It was an unforgettable experience to witness something this unexpected happening in real time. Kristian Matsson, performing since 2005 as the Tallest Man on Earth, released a good EP and an excellent debut album that Amber discovered through a sample torrent of recent indie releases. The songs on that first album totally consumed many a car ride for a very long period early in our relationship. It was so much a private experience. He seemed mysterious, his music drifting in from nowhere. And in early 2010 we found out he was playing near us, at UNC Chapel Hill; between us getting tickets and the album being released, suddenly he blew up and this second record was everywhere, heralded as one of the best albums of the new decade. By the time we made it to the show, we were surrounded by others. The venue, an old church not normally used for rock gigs of even this modest variety, was too small for the show. The tickets, which were $5 ($1 if you were a student), were those little rolls of red stubs you can get at Dollar Tree. We were early and managed to station ourselves at the front, sitting in metal folding chairs crudely set in rows. Matsson was able to make it the most intimate experience with a name performer that either of us is ever likely to have. Several years later we were extremely close to and made an equal amount of eye contact with Kate Tempest, but in Matsson's case it was just him, his guitar, the alcohol on his breath, and us. He approached from somewhere within the crowd, with no backstage available at the venue. A kid near us quietly mouthed every word to every song. The whole world had crowded in behind us, but it felt as if we were there alone. (Here is a photo Amber took, now emblazoned delightfully with the Photobucket logo.)

Even if we'd never been lucky enough to have that experience, Matsson's music directly encourages that kind of close connection, and while that hardly puts him alone in the realm of folk-rock or even in the 2000s European revival of Americana-derived country and folk music (encompassing artists as disparate as Cowboys on Dope, Homesick Hank and Thomas Dybdahl), he alone was possessed both the miracle-level chops as a guitarist, the unique yet familiar singing voice and especially the talent and eclecicism as a songwriter to almost forcefully craft that relationship with his listeners, and The Wild Hunt is really his bid to conquer as much of the world as he can within his niche. It's a rousing success: music that does not become "of the moment" for all its primitive production and small traces of yearning nostalgia, but simply harnesses that same moment and renders its specific caracteristics irrelevant.

Given that all but one track here is an acoustic guitar solo performance, the performances and songs are remarkably diverse, an achievement that requires a rare sort of unfaked talent. One reason The Wild Hunt probably made a larger impression on the world than its predecessor or its looser, sweeter sequel is that it explores so many varying dimensions of Matsson's voice and playing, without ever violating the minimalism of the analogue-taped sound or the arrangements. The variance is enhanced by the record's nearly perfect pacing, which allows for a casual entrance, a building of confidence on the first half, a reflection and grace on the second, and a strange, incongruous cloud of dust to lead us out.

Matsson was confronted repeatedly with Bob Dylan comparisons after Shallow Grave and didn't totally overcome them here, and in fact courts and mocks them on the soaring "King of Spain," as close as he's gotten to releasing an iconic song. Any worthwhile analysis should concern itself not with Matsson's superficial similarities to Dylan but with both artists' ability to hypnotize us with a bare minimum of enhancement; "Drying of the Lawns" makes the other strong claim here to a Dylan lineage in its sheer verbosity, but what's invigorating about it is its incredibly dynamic sound, shifting back and forth from quiet to loud with so little at its disposal. And obviously, Matsson isn't touched with the kind of infallible, tireless genius Dylan exhibited in the '60s; unlikely that he'd let a song slip out, lovely though it may be, that was kept as uneven as the title cut, on which the chorus is totally overwhelmed by the powerful verses despite the haunting hook "I plan to be forgotten when I'm gone."

But "inferior to Bob Dylan" is not a meaningful criticism, not when such touchstones are of so little concern to the artist playing before us; at its best, The Wild Hunt doesn't strive for the past, it rather strives for the openness, the lack of post-modern savvy that might have led a large cross-section of humanity to embrace the most elemental music we hear in the first place. It wants us to reboot ourselves as an audience. Free yourself of irony and detachment and just hear these songs that could've risen up from the dirt. "Burden of Tomorrow" is his most ancient-sounding effort, and he's perfectly aware of this, displaying confidence in the modulation and power of his voice greater than on any of his previous work. The character in his voice covers a much less predictable range of emotions here: "You're Going Back" allows for anger, vocally and in its wall-of-sound produced by a single acoustic guitar; and "Lion's Heart" offers a knowing love ballad with sinister caveats -- the unnatural stretchings of supposed destiny -- and he gives it a knowing chide, even if it's only himself he's challenging.

My own preference in this evolved phase of Matsson's career is for the songs on which he seems to be singing straight to us all, and no verbal or musical conceit distracts the way it does on the piano-driven "Kids on the Run." The best compositions on Shallow Grave were the ones that were most beholden to old song forms, like the ingenious murder ballad "The Gardener." On The Wild Hunt, Matsson seems to discover himself when he strips every external distraction away the same way he wants his listeners to; "Troubles Will Be Gone" might be a little obvious in its sentiments, but it's also lovely, timeless and, at the right moment, honestly reassuring, reinforced by his gentle vocal. He explores the same parts of his voice on "Thousand Ways," knowingly sung with a spirit of great folk traditionalism from the perspective of a bitter moon but beautiful and sweet in its sense of clockwork inevitability. I still remember Matsson looking straight at us when he sang "If I don't get you in the morning, by the evening I sure will," the moon coming out for even just us.

It isn't a rebuke to the rest of these songs that they are all basically overshadowed by "Love Is All," it's simply that "Love Is All" is one of the finest songs anyone has written and released in the last decade. Emotionally overwhelming, cathartic and curiously private in its meaning and the hidden source of Matsson's range of expression from observant calm to frayed and wounded, it's a brilliant piece of writing and stunningly eloquent in lyrical and melodic terms. But mostly it just tears you up, with nothing barring us from its universal evocation of unredeemed heartbreak but also no clue to the specific engimas that prompted it; in that sense it's as harrowing a depiction of a dying relationship as "I'm Looking Through You" by the Beatles. But as a Beatles diehard, I don't know if I'd be prepared to put any of Paul's lyrics in that song up against "the future was our skin and now we don't dream anymore."

All these rational explications of how a song like that works give you nothing of how it feels -- and how it's enhanced by the album's long lead-up and aftermath to its climactic explosion of feeling. Matsson proves himself a divine singer and writer here, yes, but what really matters is how the heart soars at every sound he makes, at even the fraying of the tape at one point. The subject matter of The Wild Hunt had specific narrative meaning for its composer, a chronicle of the two years since Shallow Grave, and it takes courage and showmanship to make that viable as something for the world to hear and embrace. The stories he tells here, apart from the hopeful heralding of better times on "The Wild Hunt" and "Troubles Will Be Gone," weren't really directly applicable to anything happening in my life in 2010 or since, but I could readily plug those emotions back into my past and feel myself drifting into the utter power of being understood. There is a reason "Love Is All" is the song I've listened to most in the last nine years, to the point that hearing it is as routine as crying once was: "here come the tears / but like always, I let them go / just let them go-oh-oh." Those lines, the way they're sung, the way we saw him sing them that night at Gerrard Hall, what we decide they mean, are an act of open empathy, and that's why for me they define this artist and these times that he had no interest in defining.

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