What is revivalism anyway? Is it simply the rebirth of something long gone? New life breathed into sounds old or thought dead? Is revivalism easy to spot? Is there a difference between being part of a revival — which implies some fleeting interest — and tapping into a tradition? How can we tell the difference?
I raise those questions because it’s artists like Kristian Matsson — who is the Tallest Man on Earth (in name only) — that make me rethink all that stuff. There is a big difference between channeling tradition and standing on the shoulders of giants, and if I had to place Matsson in one of those camps, I’d had to go with the former.
But here’s the thing: Listening to The Wild Hunt, I’m not sure he’s doing either. Yes, the early-Dylan folk feel is very much in place on this record. It’s still just Matsson and his guitar for most of the record. There’s no stepping away from the intimate, threadbare sound of Shallow Grave. So, The Wild Hunt is unlikely to change the musical connections you’ve already made with Matsson on that album. Yet, if you can set aside your connections, and approach this album on its own terms, something strange might occur to you. Matsson is singing these songs like he’s never heard of Bob Dylan, or Greenwich, or any tradition at all. This is a sound that is very much his — embedded in every note he plucks from his guitar, every word that creaks out of his mouth. He may still owe quite a bit to some musical legends, but he does them, and himself, the most justice by not nodding to them on this record. The Wild Hunt is his record, first and foremost. And it is an excellent record.
It is also a record that manages to expand his sound through restriction. He doesn’t try to add sounds to branch his music out. Instead, these songs take simple melodies, much like Shallow Grave, and tighten them up into confident, wholly arresting folk songs. He also subtly breaks off from Dylan — who in those early years established his melody and repeated it as a spare foundation for endless strings of words — by making his guitar as emotive as his voice. He delivers notes in a bright, pastoral roll on “Troubles Will Be Gone”, hinting at the easier days he’s aiming for. Chords thump restlessly through the title track, while Matsson muses about wanderlust with an infectious zeal. In the next track, “Burden of Tomorrow”, he sings lines like, “Once I held a pony by its flying mane”, and the churning guitar echoes that sort of cut-free riding.
On top of the pitch-perfect inflections in his playing, Matsson’s vocals performance here is stunning. The sweet creak of his voice is way up in the mix, and he sings each song like he’s trying to pull free of it. The way he belts out the chorus on “You’re Going Back”, or the demand in his voice at the end of “King of Spain”, or even the hushed, tense croak of “Love Is All” — each track shows Matsson letting loose, whipping these songs up into something both love-worn and hopeful. Shallow Grave showed how well his cracked voice could work in contained melodies, but here he breaks free and shows off a staggering range. The Wild Hunt, from the fidgety joy of the opening track right on down, mirrors that freedom. Matsson is no longer in that shallow grave, he’s not resigned to working the garden, he’s a man on the run and happy to be. He’s not running from something or to anywhere in particular. We’re in that wandering middle with him on The Wild Hunt, and it sounds awfully exciting.
There is one big change on the record with closer “Kids on the Run.” The title itself sounds out of place, and as it turns out it’s a wholly different direction for Matsson. Where we all turn to early Dylan with the Tallest Man on Earth as some sort of marker, this track channels a more current king of American music. The track, the only one here performed on piano, sounds much more like the Boss. In fact, it could be a demo from Darkness on the Edge of Town, if Matsson’s voice could drop a few octaves and take on the more pained rust of Springsteen’s voice. Still, the song shares plenty with the Boss’s best stuff — there are mentions of redemption and desire, the communal “we”, kids running away for a fresh start. However, like all those mentions of Dylan, these connections are ours, not Matsson’s. It may be a jarring shift at first, to see him leave an album of guitar-folk behind for a piano ballad, but once you warm up to it, it’s a brilliant album closer, and another example of his preternatural understanding of folk music, and of balladry, that goes beyond any mimicry or borrowing we might want to place on his songs.
With The Wild Hunt, we’re two albums in with Matsson, and he has proved he can do quite a bit with his spare elements. So, if he keeps up this kind of brilliant consistency, at some point we’ll stop talking about who he sounds like, and we’ll start comparing new artists to him. Until then, we can keep those musical forefathers in mind, as long as we don’t give them too much sway over what’s happening on this record. Because the Tallest Man on Earth, in each of these excellent songs, is very much in his own musical world.