The Tallest Man on Earth: “Shallow Grave”
Bob Dylan didn’t appear out of thin air, but it sure sounded like it at the time. Just go back and listen to one of his earliest, pre-electric recordings, like The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or Another Side of Bob Dylan; his profound admiration of Woody Guthrie may be the stuff of legend by now, but his talent on those early records is so effortless, so timeless, it seems as though Dylan emerged a fully-formed talent, owing no particular debt to music history, simply writing it as he went along.
It’s that quality that has always seemed to elude the countless New Dylans that have been popping up for the last four decades, and it’s that quality that seems to have magically struck again with Kristian Matsson, a normal-sized guy who records under the name The Tallest Man on Earth and might just be the first New Dylan to really capture the spirit of what made the Old Dylan great from Day One. He knows the secret of how to be a good Dylan impersonator: Don’t impersonate Dylan. On his debut full-length, Shallow Grave, Matsson doesn’t sound like he’s aping Dylan, or anybody else for that matter. His music sounds effortless and unforced, untouched by time and wrapped in mystery. He’s not playing these songs because he wants to be the next Bob Dylan; he’s playing them because it’s what he was born to do, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that nobody else but him could ever play these particular songs.
His is such a natural songwriting talent that his words and melodies seem to exist in a vacuum; his craggy, nasally voice might sound like a rougher, tougher Mr. Zimmerman, and his loose, limber acoustic guitar and banjo strumming doubtless has some vague touchstones in country, blues, gospel, and folk, but, when Matsson’s songs are playing, it’s difficult to remove yourself from them long enough to trace his musical genealogy. And that’s what separates him from just about everyone else who’s doing this kind of thing in 2008, even the really good ones, like Ezra Furman. Furman does a damn good Dylan impression, but it’s still a Dylan impression. Matsson is nobody but Matsson, and his album is a treasure on its own terms.
And so it seems woefully inadequate to call his music folk, though that’s essentially what it is. But gentle, coffee-shop balladry it is not; this is rugged, rowdy stuff, fuller and richer in sound, more lively and energetic, than any guy-and-his-guitar setup has any right to be. Matsson strums the hell out of that guitar of his-frantically, breathlessly at times-and his singing is equally rough and tumble.
The album is a small, fleeting thing that seems to disappear into empty tape hiss as suddenly and mysteriously as it begins, but that only makes it more powerful; when it ends, the words and melodies are still ringing in your ears. And if the whole thing sounds somehow dusty and well-worn, that’s not because it’s trying to ape any particular time or place, but because it seems to exist entirely outside of time.
Of course it’s the songs that make the album great, impossible though it may be to separate Matsson from his songs; his writing and playing are so organic that it feels as though the songs are an extension of him, no easier to tear away from him than his arms or legs would be. And though the music makes vague references to Dylan’s folky years, the songs have more in common with, say, Bringing it All Back Home. Matsson is a master of imagery, and these songs feel like outpourings of pure imagination, with deep, sharp emotional hooks. He’s equally comfortable singing love songs and prayers-sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which-and his lyrics have a kind of internal logic that make them look silly on paper, but they sound utterly timeless and universal when he sings them, whether he’s spitting out surrealist one-liners in “The Blizzard’s Never Seen the Desert Sand” or coaxing a unicorn in the bizarre fairy-tale world of “Into the Stream.” The best song, “The Gardner,” is a storytelling masterpiece that turns a tale of jealousy and unrequited love into a dark and deadpan murder ballad that’s funny and touching and completely hypnotic. The themes are universal, the words and images all Matsson’s. That’s his gift, and that’s why he’s a gift to us.