The Tallest Man on Earth is Kristian Matsson, a 29-year-old singer-songwriter from Sweden who is not physically tall, but whose music is large, especially considering he’s a lone guy with an acoustic guitar. Matsson has pumped out two full-length albums (the second, Wild Hunt, made my favorite albums of 2010 list) and a couple of EPs since 2006 (all of which he wrote, performed and produced virtually alone), and built a loyal following with his energetic live shows. Now comes his third record, There’s No Leaving Now (out June 12), another gem of joyous acoustic songs with a slightly expanded palette (partly courtesy of a couple of … gasp! … extra musicians) including low-key electric guitar flourishes, keyboards and even occasional drums and bass.
Those new touches are evident right away. Listen carefully to the first track, “To Just Grow Away,” and you’ll realize that, yes, those are drums quietly brushing away and a bass track, too. But don’t worry, long-time fans: The Tallest Man on Earth doesn’t seem poised to go the full band route: at the rate he’s adding instruments, it’ll be another three or four albums before he gets there. In the meantime, the new album is still mostly his acoustic guitar and wondrous voice wrapping itself around beautifully crafted, upbeat folk: “Leading Me Now,” with his beautiful use of hammer-on’s and pull-off’s; “Wind and Walls,” a classic, rapidly strummed slice of sunny folk.
Matsson invites inevitable comparisons with Bob Dylan – and for good reason: his vocal tone is similar (although much stronger, and without Dylan’s … errr … idiosyncrasies), and his lyrics are full of wordplay, symbolism, and obscure references. Where his music diverges considerably from Dylan’s is its sheer joyousness. Even a song with a title like “Revelation Blues” (the second track on the new album) radiates energy and life. It comes from his careful choice of open tunings, energetic strumming, and exuberant singing. On There’s No Leaving Now, the new instruments he’s added also contribute to this joyousness. On “Revelation Blues,” it’s what sounds like a muted, effect-clear electric guitar figure that joins the acoustic after a few seconds and lifts the song into the stratosphere.
He takes a similar approach on “1904” (the lead single) with a high electric guitar chirping subtly and adding beautiful color to what it otherwise a straightforward Tallest Man on Earth acoustic strummer. On “Bright Lanterns,” it’s pedal steel swelling underneath. He evens lets electric guitar take the lead (albeit with a very clean almost acoustic sound) on “Criminals.”
Even when a song isn’t particularly joyous (such as the title track, a moody piano number that reflects the spare, blurry cover art, or the melancholy closing track, “On Every Page”), there’s a hopefulness there, courtesy of Matsson’s emotive voice. He pushes against the top end of his range. You can hear the strain and cracking, but he holds the notes (and it’s not Autotuned: check any video of Matsson live and you’ll realize that his recorded voice is real). This ability helps give his songs a kind of yearning uplift.
With his songwriting ability and energy, Matsson could easily continue in the “man with a guitar” vein and maintain a very successful career. That he’s slowly – glacially – expanding his sound bodes well for the continued development on this phenomenal singer-songwriter. Get this album when it comes out Tuesday, and try to catch him live! (Full disclosure, I haven’t seen him yet, but his live videos are amazing and I’ve heard great reviews from friends who’ve seen him.)