A dude with an acoustic guitar. These days, the image can bring a shudder to many, as so many half-assed projects have been birthed from this arrangement. This dude is different.
Kristian Matsson, the Tallest Man on Earth, is actually quite tiny in stature. His voice and finger-picking, however, are anything but. When I saw him open for the Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice in the spring of 2009, I was blown away. When the Swedish native stepped on stage and I had absolutely no prior knowledge of his music. Standing back from the mic and letting out a mighty bellow, I perked up in my seat at the historic Buskirk-Chumley Theater here in Bloomington. His fingers nimbly yet powerfully picked at his guitar, often capo-ed way up the neck. Like I said--blown away.
2008 brought Matsson’s first album, Shallow Grave, released by Swedish label Gravitation. It was powerful in its simplicity--no bells and whistles, just a bit of background hiss but not really lo-fi. The Wild Hunt cleans things up but keeps the simple winning formula. Gone are the couple banjo-accompanied tracks, and while he was just as skilled at picking the five-stringer, its tone was too thin to support his mighty pipes (though you do see it peek up behind the guitar on a track or two here). It’s impossible to not mention Dylan as a vocal comparison for Matsson. His rough melodies bend and dance around the beat effortlessly, and he varies things up perfectly throughout a song to captivate the listener just as Dylan did in his early years, though their songwriting is completely different despite both falling under the wide folk umbrella.
The opening title track has remained one of my favorites. I love the little things that together make up the chorus: the falsetto on "I’ll live until the call"; the grit he puts behind "And I plan to be forgotten when I’m gone"; and I appreciate how he saves that sweet raw high note for the very last chorus on "I’ll be leaving in the fall-all-all!" He pulls a similar trick in the galloping “King of Spain,” as he slows for the final chorus: "I wanna be the...," his voice crackling as he lands on a rather odd choice of words for a long, high fermata, but it works so well as he comes down to "...king of Spain." It’s easy to overlook, but “The Drying of the Lawns” is so well-crafted, with the high strings of his finger picking echoing and doubling his vocal line. Hearing his foot tapping lightly on the floor throughout the song invites you right into the studio with him.
Matsson’s finger-picking is as awe-inspiring as ever, like on “Thousand Ways” and especially on “Troubles Will Be Gone,” but the focus with this album seems to be on the strummers, with “King of Spain” being the single released before the album, and the two opening tracks--most American listeners’ introduction to the man--are also strummed. He’s working just as hard on these tracks, adding in bits of countermelody and nuances to the parts, and these songs seem to give him more freedom vocally and I like these melodies the most. “Burden of Tomorrow” has a melody so beautiful I can’t even explain it. "Once I held a glacier to an open flame," he croons, the peaks and valleys of the line irresistible.
It’s practically shocking to hear the opening piano chords of closer “Kids on the Run.” The booming, pedal-heavy chords support his vocals nicely and while he isn't quite the virtuoso on this instrument, he uses it emotively in the same way as his guitar, pushing and pulling on the tempo to reel you in.
The Wild Hunt is something that needs to be heard to be believed. I feel I haven’t done the album justice, because what else can you say about a dude and his guitar? This dude is different.