Throughout the early 2000s, Kristian Matsson, frontman for the obscure Swedish rock group Montezumas, experimented in his spare time with recording music significantly different from the six-piece, Link Wray & The Raymen-inspired pop-boogie his main project pursued. Instead, Matsson took a deep breath, picked up an acoustic guitar, and slowed his lyrics down enough to accommodate Roscoe Holcomb-style melodies, finally developing a collection of original folk tunes good enough to be released on the last day of 2006, by the Scandinavian label Gravitation. This first offering, eponymous with his newly minted nom de plume, presaged the coming change in Matsson's career, but also quietly heralded the change in what folk music will from now on expect from its most talented practitioners.
In short, Matsson had become The Tallest Man On Earth. Here was a fleet-fingered guitarist who was also a singer—not just someone who hit the notes, but someone who responded to them, allowed himself to be hit back. And not only was he a guitarist, and a singer, he was a consummately evocative writer, churning out language that marches along quite effortlessly on its own. Fifteen months later, Gravitation published his first LP, Shallow Grave, and almost immediately The Tallest Man was off touring the U.S. with John Vanderslice. The rest is, albeit quietly, history.
Mid-April's The Wild Hunt, released this side of the Norwegian Sea by Dead Oceans, shimmers and floats and dances and dreams even more ferociously than its two predecessors, which is an accomplishment already, just on its face. But the devil is in the details—and there are a lot of details.
Matsson plays the guitar stupendously. His 5000-piece-puzzle fingerpicking style is featured on five of the album's ten tracks, but calling the other four 'strummed' does a disservice to the precisely rhythmic bass and occasional counterpoints he slides in with his nimble left hand. (For you smart asses dissatisfied with my arithmetic, the tenth song is played on a piano.) On "You're Going Back," Matsson seems to master his own sound as he goes, sliding up the mids just before he starts singing, cutting the bass to rhythmic precision, and holding the treble back at will. Meanwhile, "Troubles Will Be Gone" is built upon a fingerpicked line both frenetically complex and melodically beautiful, and the lyrics of "The Drying of the Lawns" float down a river of sunny, summery countermelodies shining from Matsson's busy fingers.
This is not, however, a guitar record. Matsson's virtuosity is a critical element in terms of foundation, but the real magic—or, wildness—is in his songwriting and vocalization. His themes are complex, even inscrutable, but are executed with such real emotion that it is impossible not to be affected by the spirit, if not always the intellect, of his songs. Album opener "The Wild Hunt" sets the stage, with Matsson casting the age-old Scandinavian folk tale around himself, declaring his purpose to live in the midst of nature even as the gods set deadly chase all around him. "Let's watch phenomenons that rise out of the darkness now," he urges, caring more for the experience than for safety; he even expects himself to be stolen by the immortal hunters: "and I plan to be forgotten when I'm gone." Compare this to the first song on Shallow Grave, where, instead, Matsson yearned for the day he would "get to slumber / Just like a mole deep in the ground / And [he] won't be found." He's come a long way.
Having established his priorities, Matsson gets into relationship stuff with "The Burden of Tomorrow," in which he reveals his fear of becoming the title of the track. He reassures himself with claims of vast, Norse-legend-sized brags ("once I held a glacier to an open flame"), a literary device he employs throughout the album in a sardonic, self-amused way (In "Thousand Ways," he claims, "I got sixteen hundred tigers now, tied to silver strings." And who says he doesn't?).
One of the most talked-about tracks is "King of Spain," which, incidentally, makes Matsson's fourth reference to Spanish culture (you have to keep reminding yourself, 'this guy's from Sweden.') In it, Matsson reimagines another theme from Shallow Grave, specifically from "The Gardener," the song which gives reason to his superlative moniker: "I know the runner's going to tell you / There ain't no cowboy in my hair / So now he's buried by the daisies / So I could stay the tallest man in your eyes, babe." Basically, homeboy murders anyone who might possibly betray his imperfections to his lover. In "King of Spain," however, The Tallest Man has matured enough to be open about at least some of his faults, in keeping with his I-plan-to-be-forgotten-when-I'm-gone aesthetic: "I am not from Barcelona / I'm not even from Madrid." He still wants to be the Tallest Man On Earth, but recognizes that he can't manipulate his lover into thinking that he is, instead having to request, "Well if you could reinvent my name / ... / I wanna be the King of Spain."
The real success of the song, however, is in his joyfully distraught singing of wonderfully imaginative lyrics, just a boy lost in a daydream, taking it further and further until belting out rapturously, "I'll wear my boots of Spanish leather / Oh, while I'm tightening my crown." But whatever it is, or is not, it is also a celebration of a man's feeling of invincibility when his lover chooses him to be The King of Spain, or The Tallest Man On Earth, or whatever spectacular metaphor you please.
The other songs on the album triumph just as resoundingly, in their own respective moods and themes. "Love Is All" finds the speaker drowning his lover, singing "I bet this mighty river's both my savior and my sin," only to repeat, distractedly, "Oh, my savior and my sin." Matsson's crackling brown paper voice returns to the refrain, "Here come the tears / But like always, I let them go / Just let them go," in ways so subtle and moving it is almost painful to listen to. Similarly, the way Matsson breaks his voice over, "Oh a thousand / It's just a thousand" on "Thousand Ways" makes you almost believe that he has, in fact, "lived a thousand years, a thousand turns of tides."
The final track, "Kids On The Run," is perhaps the most heartbreaking, which is appropriate given that its most memorable moment is at the end when Matsson turns his crunching, gravelly, nasally voice to maximum affectedness and pleads, "Oh, let's break some hearts...." Significantly, it is also the only song he plays on the piano, which echoes weird and lonely after nine tracks of warm, fast guitar playing.
The creativity and depth that Kristian Matsson displays on The Wild Hunt—indeed, has displayed in his whole short career—promises much, much more growth, rebirth, and excitement. The earnest voice, the virtuosic guitar, the deep songwriting, the impeccable sense of timing, the sheer presence—Matsson has it all, and is using it to define the next evolution of folk music. Even if his lyrics are sometimes frustratingly impenetrable, perhaps they are, after all, just "riddles," carved "on the lonesome vine," left for us to find "the lonesome place" where The Tallest Man On Earth was—if the legendary event happened at all—born.