The Tallest Man on Earth put on an incredible performance that will be very difficult to put into words, at Newport Folk Festival on Sunday. Being about the third to last artist of the festival, his set ran into Jackson Browne’s headlining performance; Kristian Matsson performed on perhaps one of the smallest stages and brought a crowd far too large for the small stage to handle. As Tune-Yards was finishing her set (where Kristian could be spotted watching secretly on the sidelines) crowds were already beginning to push their way in. Crowds got so large that state police were brought in to keep the fire lanes open, and unfortunately had to aggressively force many people trying to catch a desperate glimpse of Kristian, out from the lanes and into the rainy uncovered crowds surrounding the tent.
If you have not witnessed Kristian in action, it is something that stays in one’s mind forever. His presence is unchallenged. He pounds through each song, making it seem effortless to play such beautiful music as he switches between at least 5 guitars and a piano.
At Newport he chose mainly from his newest piece of (phenomenal) work, There’s No Leaving Now, but also a few songs from his EP, Sometimes The Blues is Just a Passing Bird, one from his first album (“Where Do My Bluebirds Fly” from Shallow Graves) as well as his theme song of sorts ”The King of Spain” off of The Wild Hunt during which Kristian paused to let the whole crowd sing a long for a verse or two. An intense moment- the rain pattering on the tent combined with the crowd singing loudly as if to assure Kristian that they knew each word to “The King of Spain” was something every person present would never forget.
Although a Tallest Man on Earth performance is difficult to describe, it is as you would dream it do be when listening to his music. Kristian is perfection, in his music and in his total presence.
After opening for Bon Iver in 2008, Kristian Matsson garnered countless comparisons to Bob Dylan because of his folky wanderlust and romantic, husky crooning. Matsson’s last release, The Wild Hunt, built the foundation of his music around his potentially abrasive vocals, allowing his lyrics to shine through. There’s No Leaving Now, his third album as The Tallest Man On Earth, is hardly a departure from his notoriously nasal style, but offers another glimpse at Matsson’s mix of beautifully composed guitar, blanketed by enigmatic folk stylings.
Matsson sounds more relaxed, even from the start of album-opener “To Just Grow Away”, which contains the typical The Tallest Man On Earth sound of jangling acoustic guitar and lyrics that feature anecdotal relationships between life and nature. The album’s single, “1904”, is the familiar combination of crystalline acoustic guitar and Matsson’s powerful wail and, as a single, it shows the separation between new and old The Tallest Man On Earth sounds. Though the difference may be subtle, Matsson’s raspy delivery is less blistering in the past, seeming like a guised pop track once the chorus kicks into gear.
There’s No Leaving Now features much more instrumentation than past records. Matsson opted for percussion, multi-layered riffs, and even piano. His energy is not as brash this time around as he opts for a calmer, more reflective demeanor that’s perhaps less distinct also. He is more successful in slow-burning songs like “Criminals” and “On Every Page” because he turns everything down except his voice, allowing it to fill the empty space. When he sings the chorus on “On Every Page” he hits a high note that will bring shivers to your spine and, to be honest, that is the furthest musical outlier in this album.
Even though There’s No Leaving Now does not expand anything but Matsson’s songbook, longtime fans of Tallest Man may notice a lack of urgency from Matsson’s vocals that previously appeared on tracks like “King of Spain” and “The Drying of The Lawns”. The raw power of Matsson’s past recordings are dulled down on this record to make way for a shinier presentation and, for singer-songwriters like him, this is a natural progression. Instead of supercharging his voice to the brink of blowing out the speakers, Matsson shows more inhibition.
What he hasn’t phoned in at all is his image, still that of a beloved troubadour, laying on thick lyrics like “whatever happened to the boy is now a tale for the seas” and “I’m just a rock that you’ll be picking up through the ages.” Matsson’s lyrics are still rich with natural imagery and vigorous self-proclamation, straddling the line between hyper-metaphorical and deeply personal. He’s always been a master of avoiding convoluted lyrics and staying genuine to his image, and this record is no exception.
There’s No Leaving Now is a fine follow-up to The Wild Hunt because it shows artistic growth while adhering to his same general approach. Simply, if you were a fan of The Tallest Man On Earth, you should most likely dive head-first into this record. If you disliked his sound in the past, nothing on this album will change your mind. A friend of mine recently likened Matsson to Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen in that their fans value smartly written songs over showy musicianship. Even though Matsson is clearly musically talented, his voice paired with acoustic guitar is his strong-suit and he wears it well on this album.
In what seems like no time at all we’ve gone from a lack of new material from The Tallest Man On Earth, to having a single or two, a bunch of tour dates, and now we’re only a week or so away from his new album becoming a Summer stalwart on our turntables and trips to the beach.
2010’s “The Wild Hunt” was on regular rotation at LBYB HQ for a good year and as we’ve mentioned before, he doesn’t need to go to extremes with his music from one album to the next. He’s the Beach House of Americana-Folk, switching things up ever-so-slightly with each new release, but sticking true to his passionate, emotive, and storytelling self you’re rewarded greatly with each listen. Give “1904” a listen and tell me I’m wrong, I double-dog dare ya!
From his debut album “Shallow Grave” in 2008 to the followup “The Wild Hunt” in 2010, Kristian Mattson, known to most of us as The Tallest Man On Earth, went from strength to strength.
“Shallow Grave” is a fantastic album, though I mostly find myself going back and listening to “The Wild Hunt” on a monthly basis, which is why it was our #4 album of 2010. He doesn’t need to reinvent himself, though, so you won’t find him doing psychedelic glitch-hop tunes backed by an orchestra of synths, instead it’ll be his rugged, acoustic, Americana take on indie-folk music.
“1904” is the first new track from his upcoming third album “There’s No Leaving Now”, due out in June via Dead Oceans, and you can listen to it below.