June 15, 2012 - 10:11am
BY KENDALL RUSS
Perhaps it is because of his own diminutive stature, but Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson has always had to grow into his bold moniker, The Tallest Man On Earth. And on his first two full-length releases, 2008’s Shallow Grave and 2010’s exquisite The Wild Hunt, it was as if Matsson sought to grow taller and taller; the breakneck pace of “Pistol Dreams” and “King of Spain” illustrated this furious surge onward and upward.
But on his latest release, There’s No Leaving Now, Matsson shifts gears and redirects his growth inward. With “To Just Grow Away” and “Revelation Blues,” he immediately adopts a different approach than his previous work, featuring percussion, rich production and considerably less urgency than previous openers, Shallow Grave’s “Honey Won’t You Let Me In” and The Wild Hunt’s title track. The two tracks ditch much of the tension and restlessness of Matsson’s earlier work, and while they may not be as strong, they exhibit considerable maturity. Even the highly recognizable fingerpicking on “Leading Me Now” feels tamer, as if the reckless abandon of previous albums has been replaced by a desire to settle down (and, given the album’s title, a desire to stay that way).
Fortunately, while Matsson may no longer be flooring it, he certainly signals no intent to apply the brakes anytime soon. “Wind And Walls” is quintessential Tallest Man, featuring the familiar strumming and impassioned rasp that made Shallow Grave and The Wild Hunt so successful. The rambling “Criminals” highlights Matsson’s mastery of antiquated folk sounds and evokes some of the restlessness of The Wild Hunt’s title track (“There was a time in my life when I was carried by all of you / Now I run like a man still don’t know what I dive into”). But where The Wild Hunt, demonstrated unrelenting passion, Matsson exercises more restraint on There’s No Leaving Now. His riffs are less frantic and his voice less jagged, giving the album a much calmer vibe. “We have clear blue waking skies / And the morning after / And memories of gold on the run / Flying around” Matsson croons on “Bright Lanterns,” articulating the serene joys of domestic life. The homey feeling he creates results from recording the majority of the album from the comfort of his home in Sweden. "For the first time I had time to set my deadline and just spend some time on this,” Matsson said of the five-month (as opposed to five weeks for The Wild Hunt,) long recording process in an interview with Rolling Stone. The comforts of married and domestic life permeate throughout the album, resulting in a refreshing blend of old and new sounds.
Matsson is at his best at the heart of the album, displaying his progression while adhering to vocal strengths, particularly on “1904” and the title track. The former is a stunning and successful example of Matsson’s production experimentation, with a rich layering of strumming and delicate riffs. Where Shallow Grave’s “The Gardener” boasted a jagged rasp, Matsson’s voice on “1904” — and indeed, the entire album — is crisper and more confident.
The title track is another example of Matsson’s musical evolution. The album’s answer to The Wild Hunt’s powerful “Kids On The Run,” “There’s No Leaving Now” is a beautiful, heart-wrenching piano ballad. While “Kids On The Run” typified the extreme emotion of The Wild Hunt, with its distorted keyboard and screeching vocals, “There’s No Leaving Now” is stripped down, displaying vocal range and strength over unassuming yet immensely moving piano chords. It embodies Matsson’s musical and personal growth thematically and tonally; “Kids On The Run” tells of the struggles of coming of age while “There’s No Leaving Now” delves deeper, an abstract (and I mean abstract) description of commitment, loss, and recovery. It is a more mature piece, highlighting Matsson’s development as a man and musician.
There’s No Leaving Now may not capture the same raw passion as previous Tallest Man albums, but Kristian Matsson’s ability to successfully experiment with new sounds (“To Just Grow Away,” “On Every Page”) while reinventing familiar ones (“There’s No Leaving Now,” “Little Brother”) culminates in a solid, expansive sound. The nomadic days of The Wild Hunt, may be over for the recently married Matsson, but that doesn’t keep him from moving forward, foot firmly on the gas.