On “1904”, the early single from the Tallest Man on Earth’s third LP, There’s No Leaving Now, Kristian Matsson’s grit-flecked tenor warbles on about a mysterious event that “shook the Earth in 1904.” What could the event be? Here are a few likely candidates. On January 16, 1904, the first major bodybuilding competition in the U.S. was held at Madison Square Garden. On May 21st, FIFA was founded. James Joyce met Nora Barnacle on June 10th. And, of course, C.A. O’Reilly established the Polytechnic University of the Philippines on October 19th (but yes, you’re right, its original name was Manila Business School). As you can see, Matsson’s lyric, with all its enigmatic import, has its work cut out for it.
Like on his previous records, Matsson’s lyrics offer a master class on how to write something at once inscrutable and distinctly evocative. If the words themselves on “1904” scan as translucent—if not totally opaque—when viewed on the page, Matsson pulls the old troubadour hat trick of communicating a sea of feeling through the way he sings them. His insistent voice, beautiful and raw, gives his listeners the proper emotional cues to follow through these tracks, and his guitar—all open tunings, either strummed with abandon or fingerpicked with virtuosic clarity—speaks volumes on its own, less a backing vocal than a full-throated co-vocalist.
In that way, There’s No Leaving Now makes use of much the same map work laid out by Matsson on 2010’s fantastic breakout The Wild Hunt. But if that record had Matsson’s guitar and vocal chords practically steaming from passionate strain after every chord change, Leaving sounds more cautious, more collected. This is a wounded album. The starry-eyed singer of The Wild Hunt, that self-mythologizing would-be conqueror who “wasn’t born, but just walked in one frosty morn,” has had the wind knocked out of him, the grin on his face checked. The natural world, always the ink in Matsson’s pen, now seems daunting and ambivalent. He sings of “rain to help a river, but a river’s so hard to please” at the start of the record, moving on later to complain, “Damn, you always treat me like a stranger, mountain.” It’s a tough world out there.
It’s also still a beautiful one. The stately strumming of “To Just Grow Away”, the accents of clean electric guitar widening the brushstrokes on “Revelation Blues”, the spare piano of the title track—these are moments as beautiful as any other Matsson has put to tape. (And it helps that they sound like they were actually put to tape, the lo-fi production perfectly suiting Matsson’s timeless aesthetic.) That title track, a showcase for Matsson’s strongest vocal performance to date, is perhaps the standout on an album with plenty of highlights and will break as many hearts as it will mend, its chorus of “Your fear of the leading light / If they are with you and your heart won’t fade / To see through a fearless eye / And know that danger finally goes away / Still you’re trying / But there’s no leaving now,” offering enough ambiguity for readings both despairing and hopeful all at once. Matsson pushes his voice to the red when he sings it—whatever the feeling, he’s feeling it strongly enough. In that way, these songs again become a cipher for the need of their audience. You can bring your emotional baggage to There’s No Leaving Now, whatever its weight or shape, and Matsson will help you carry it.