The Tallest Man on Earth: “The Wild Hunt”
It’s an inevitability of making music in 2010– or any time after 1964, for that matter: If you’re a folk-singing troubadour armed with nothing more than an acoustic guitar, you’re going to be compared to Bob Dylan. inevitable though it may be, it’s something that almost no one fully embraces. Some try to fight it, which usually ends in disaster. Some– like Loudon Wainwright, to give a prime example– lampoon it, which usually works in their favor. A few, like Bright Eyes, wear it like a crown, until the weight of unfavorable comparison crushes them and the backlash sets in.
Kristian Mattson– aka The Tallest Man on Earth– is a rare and refreshing exception. In a recent interview, Mattson took the Dylan comparisons for what they are– the highest of compliments, and a lofty expectation to which he’ll probably never quite live up. What’s more, he made no attempt to dismiss or downplay them: Yes, he said, I love Bob Dylan, and I model my music after his. I have no problem being labeled a Dylan acolyte, because that’s precisely what I am. Strange thing, though: Mattson is the new Dylan who most most fully embraces the comparison, and he also happens to be the one who most fully transcends it.
His secret, I think, is that he knows there’s more to being a good Dylan than simply imitating the man’s guitar playing or nasally singing, or even his particular brand of lyricism; what made Dylan’s music so immediately special was that it seemed to arrive fully-formed and shrouded in mystery, as if the songs stretched back to the beginning of time and the bard of Hibbing was simply channeling them. Mattson pulls the same trick; he inhabits his songs so fully that it feels like he’s merely the instrument, and the songs are playing him; he’s a vessel of something transcendent and mysterious, and the Dylan comparisons are rather miraculously diminished.
Mattson is a spectral and magnetic presence on record. The Wild Hunt is his second full-length as The Tallest Man and his first for Dead Oceans, and it contains within in little distinction from his previous album, 2008’s mesmerizing Shallow Grave. Like that album, this one contains home recordings of Mattson playing acoustic guitar, unaccompanied except for his occasional turn at the banjo. The last song, “Kids on the Run,” finds him switching out his guitar for a piano, making it the most eclectic and ambitious song to yet appear on a Tallest Man album. But never mind that. These songs are electrifying and sublime in how they seem to knead and mold the spare arrangements to fit their will. The songs are even more malleable and rich than the ones from Shallow Grave: Witness how Mattson folds propulsive pop hooks into “Burden of Tomorrow,” how “Troubles Will Be Gone” gives the mysterious suggestion of gospel music, how “You’re Going Back” channels angst into something that’s easy to imagine as grimy rock, its sparseness somehow evading quietness and gentleness altogether.
The Swedish singer is, by his own account, still learning English, and it’s incredible just how little that matters here– in fact, it is, if anything, an aid to preserving the strange transcendence of these songs, which somehow manage to be startling in their clarity even when they’re fuzzy on the details. Mattson doesn’t write specific stories or confessions so much as he writes vivid evocations that work with their own odd but consistent sense of logic. These songs are of a piece, and they paint a picture, impressionistic and surreal though it may be: It’s an album stricken with romantic turmoil and grief, but it isn’t a break-up album so much as an album about learning to love together in spite of everything. “Kids on the Run” closes the collection with its moment of greatest clarity, Mattson singing of lovers who are wounded and broken, without homes and in need of confession. “Love is All” betrays the album’s heart of darkness: “Love is all, or so I’m told, but my heart’s learned to kill.”
The human heart is rife with evil, but Mattson clings stubbornly to compassion in “Burden of Tomorrow,” while he casts his eye elsewhere in the sweet gospel purity of “Troubles will be Gone.” But the album’s centerpiece is “King of Spain,” a wonderfully funny and touching story-song that’s this album’s equivalent of “The Gardner” from the last one; and yet, if that previous song, with its tale of a jealous and insecure lover who literally buries his competition, revealed the brittle and morbid heart of Shallow Grave, “King of Spain” positions The Wild Hunt as a decidedly romantic album, deeply scarred but also deeply hopeful. Like “The Gardner” is features a narrator who harbors certain misconceptions, but they aren’t delusions here so much as they are transformations– sublime illusions brought about by the redemptive power of real love. As a narrative, the song is a little bit abstract, a little bit silly, a little bit cheeky in its Dylan referencing, and ultimately thrilling and affecting– much like the album itself.