Sweden’s Kristian Matsson has been releasing music for more than five years. Regrettably and horribly, I only learned about him three weeks ago from a friend in Canada. I had to travel to Canada to learn about a man who’s quite widely and visibly (and rightly) been compared to Bob Dylan since he appeared on the international scene in 2008 with a five-song self-titled EP, followed soon after by 2009’s Shallow Grave. The Tallest Man on Earth, as he calls himself, has taught me a few things in a short space of time: routine hiding from the Internet in the name of productivity is unproductive if it means completely bypassing great music and believing, thanks to such willful ignorance, that great music is a thing of the past. He’s taught me that there is more to say than what my favorite musicians have already said. Of course there will always be more to say. It’s hard to be concerned for my generation with someone like Kristian Matsson for a peer.
Matsson’s masterpiece, so far, is “Love Is All,” from 2010’s The Wild Hunt. It’s a song that reluctantly purports the message of its title. “Love is all, from what I’ve heard,” Matsson says, “but my heart’s learned to kill.” It’s a song for emotional runaways, although Matsson, who is 30 now and married, actually more frequently sings about devotion, both fraught and successful. On another favorite of mine, “The Sparrow and the Medicine,” from his debut, he sings, “I want to be your medicine / I want to feed the sparrow in your heart.” His metaphors are refreshing and surprising and occasionally weird. He appears always to be relishing in the possibilities of the English language in a way that natives sometimes forget to; he can be as whimsical and thought-provoking as Nabokov, another ESL student.
Matsson is a child of rurality. When he sings about cities it is mostly reluctantly and sometimes angrily, to provide an often menacing contrast between his beloved rivers and lakes and fields. When I recently returned to New York City from a long stint in the country I relied on his music to dull the sensory overload and convince me I was back in the place I had first heard his music, which I imagine is probably not all that different from Matsson’s rural Sweden. In “You’re Going Back” the female subject of the song is returning to a city. Matsson sends her off with warm memories of the country and futile pleas for her to stay: “Well I hope you could hear / all the screams from the forest / all the ghosts in the trees / and the love of a dog.” She’s not happy to be going back either. Riding back in a cab she says, “Just let it go away.” Not that life in the country is a bed of roses. In “Love Is All” he admits he’s “got a house made of spiderwebs / and clouds rolling in / you bet this mighty river’s / both my savior and my sin.” But the country is the pallet from which he draws the majority of his ideas. He seems to never run out of them. In five years he’s released about 50 songs.
Matsson’s style of playing, like Dylan’s in the beginning, is loose and mostly finger-picked. His guitar, usually an acoustic, often sounds as if the strings are about to fall off. He records mostly in the rooms of wherever he’s living. It’s not uncommon to hear birds chirping in the background. There is the static-filled tinniness that often comes from home recordings. None of this matters, of course. His music is purely a dance between voice and guitar, the melodies pleasing and usually uplifting and the lyrics spilling forth, ardent and perplexed and curious.
There are “hits”: “The Gardener” is probably his best known song; despite knowing nothing about him I recognized the tune when I first heard it. In a live performance of the song, Matsson, who is known for his stage banter, describes “The Gardener” as being “about flowers, about being super insecure, and about death.” In it, he imagines killing off the competition that he perceives to be in pursuit of the object of his affection. “Now he’s buried by the daisies,” he says of one, “so that I could stay the tallest man / in your eyes babe.” Eventually he’s the only one left, and his garden, filled with the bodies of suitors, grows even more beautiful as the dead rivals “fertilize” his roses and jasmine.
Bob Dylan fans are probably either annoyed by the glaring similarities between the two musicians, or else can sigh with relief that they have something else to listen to besides a well-worn 98-song iTunes playlist called “bob” (maybe that’s just me). I think Matsson’s just done too good of a job earning the comparison to be punished for it. He’s also modest about it. He grew up on Dylan and Nick Drake, borrowing both musicians’ propensity for open tunings, but he’s said that he doesn’t consider himself part of their canon necessarily. “This is just how I play,” he said. But like it or not, he is.
Learning “Love Is All” on the guitar last week, I was reminded of the years I spent practicing monotonous scales on the violin. The frustrating process of learning something complicated eventually gives way to a kind of drug-like high of satisfaction at finally learning the thing, and also anger at how the eff Matsson, and Dylan and Drake and Lindsey Buckingham and the countless other peerless pluckers out there, compose such intricacy out of thin air. Matsson learned classical guitar from a young age, but gave it up for awhile in his late teens because it was starting to feel “like math,” as he stated in another interview. Nevertheless, the classical tradition is pervasive in his work. It’s his undeniable foundation, a knowledge base he can’t exactly shirk.
The friend responsible for alerting me to the Tallest Man on Earth’s existence told me, “Everyone I introduce him to, I’m like, ‘You’re welcome.'” True, I probably haven’t been this paralyzed by a contemporary musician since Joanna Newsom, and the purpose of this piece, with apologies to previous and longtime fans of Matsson, is to encourage a few more people to be similarly transfixed.