Widgets Magazine

Album Review: ‘Tallest Man’ and the Evolution of Folk

From the beginning, Swedish songwriter Kristian Matsson – better known by his stage name The Tallest Man on Earth – has drawn Bob Dylan comparisons with his feverish guitar strumming, reedy vocals and poignant lyrics. But like Bob Dylan, Kristian Matsson is equally indebted to the folk tradition of Woody Guthrie, characterized by simplicity in terms of production while also sporting complex guitar picking and storytelling.

800px-The_Tallest_Man_on_Earth_03_-_20101117

Folk artist Kristian Matsson, also known as The Tallest Man on Earth. (Courtesy of Matt Perich.)

The Tallest Man on Earth’s first two albums – “Shallow Grave” and “The Wild Hunt” – were striking examples of a modern folk singer experimenting within that aesthetic, powerful in part because of their raw energy. But you won’t mistake Matsson’s newest release “Dark Bird is Home” (set to be released May 12th) for “The Wild Hunt,” nor would he want you to. Matsson’s previous album “There’s No Leaving Now” marked a distinct shift in that it sacrificed some of Matsson’s intensity for moments of elegance, incorporating new instruments and a more polished production. “Dark Bird is Home” continues and vastly expands upon this new development.

From the album’s opener “Fields of Our Home,” it is clear that the production is bigger than before. Near the end of the song, with its crescendo of strings, horns and multi-tracked, resonant vocal harmonies, you can scarcely hear the guitar’s gentle strumming, ever-present but almost imperceptible, a gentle reminder of the raw exuberance of his early work.

Thematically, the album is somber – the lyrics detail struggles with doubt, uncertainty, thwarted desire and fear – but this release is about navigating the darkness and the light. On “Darkness of the Dream,” Matsson muses, “I feed on the sunlight, but sunlight just drives me away.” Likewise, though he often tells of the struggles of an aimless wanderer, he also sings, “At times like these even travelers can win.” On the album’s closing title track, he cries, “I fall in love but keep on falling.”

Although Matsson’s new album navigates gloomy territory, it acknowledges the joy of life as well. The song “Sagres,” the first single released for the album, is a perfect example of the juxtaposition of this light and dark as well as Matsson’s expanded sound. The song’s swirling riff is lively, exuberant and indicative of an expanded musical palette. Yet amid the polished production, Matsson still manages to sound like the lonesome traveler of his more traditional folk days. Layers of sound drop out on the bridge as he quietly sings, “It’s just all this fucking doubt.” For a minute, his voice nearly breaks; it seems as if he’s reached his lowest point. Then the triumphant instrumental riff, which holds the song together, re-enters. Though the song depicts internal struggle, Matsson doesn’t come out doubtful in the end – he emerges vibrant and alive, aided by the grandeur of the production, using every tool at his disposal.

The Tallest Man on Earth’s development over the years – as well as the development of other likeminded folk artists such as Iron & Wine and Bon Iver, who moved beyond more traditional folk to experiment with other genres and sounds – raises interesting questions for folk music as a whole. For a genre so embedded in tradition yet filled with so many creative songwriters, it can be difficult to determine what “folk” truly means. Does a traditional folk artist lose their authenticity or their energy when they go from a raw acoustic sound to more polished, layered production? How do they stay true to themselves and their folk roots while still experimenting with craft? Ever since Bob Dylan went electric on the Newport Folk Festival stage in 1965, these questions have defined the genre as a whole. Dylan’s performance in ’65 was met with both cheers and boos. In the end, listeners will have to experience The Tallest Man on Earth’s new sound for themselves and choose which side they are on.

Contact Tyler Dunston at tdunston ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Tyler Dunston

Tyler Dunston is a music writer for the Stanford Daily. He is a junior majoring in English and minoring in Art Practice. To contact him, e-mail tdunston 'at' stanford.edu.