When summer strikes, I find myself engulfed in recollections of the past. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that one tends to find themselves engaged in pastimes that recall youthful days: bike rides, softball games, swimming in lakes, rivers, or oceans, or falling into long conversations about the deeper truths of the Universe (or who was the most important Beatle). Whatever the reason, I find this time of year filled with a lot of pleasant nostalgia. And, I have discovered a record that is a perfect soundtrack for these days of the wistful meanderings of memory: The Tallest Man on Earth‘s There’s No Leaving Now.
The Tallest Man on Earth is the stage name of the Swedish born Kristian Matsson. (I know another Swede.) Matsson’s music is a striking counterpoint to much of the pop and indie rock music of today because it is firmly rooted in an old-school, non-electronic Folk tradition. Although he is often compared to a young Bob Dylan (i.e., pre-Bringing it All Back Home, tin-pan alley Bob), TMOE’s music tends to have less of an American Memphis Blues and Okie-Folk sound then the early Dylan and definitely borrows more from the Anglo-Folk sound of 70s folk revivalists like Nick Drake – a thoroughly underappreciated singer-songwriter who left us far too early (but left us some beautiful music). TMOE channels Dylan in his unique vocal style that isn’t always as melodious as say folk(ie)s like Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris or the boys of CSN. Instead, much like Dylan, Matsson shifts between singing and speaking in ways that run counter to the song’s melody or, at times, he purposefully hits notes that will take you aback, yet which serve the song perfectly.
From the opening track “To Just Grow Away”, TMOE lays the basic framework for the album: mellow and pensive reveries filled with gorgeous guitar work and his spellbinding storytelling. But, don’t confuse “mellow” for sleep-inducing. TMOE has a way of packing carefully restrained intensity and subtle upbeat tones into songs of a slower variety, just check out “Revelation Blues”, “Leading Me Know” and, the album’s first single, “1904”. In particular, I cannot stop listening to “Revelation Blues”. Through a series of powerfully evocative metaphors, Matsson’s narrator tells the story of a failed love a product of mixed signals, poor timing and the inexplicable differences of life, an idea beautifully captured by the song’s recurring mantra: “But sometimes it’s just roses dying too young…”. Apart from the emotional intensity of the album’s lyrics, the power of TMOE’s music lies in its ability to evoke a simpler and halcyon time or world. Is this romanticizing the past? In a way, yes.
To be completely forthright, the album reminds me of a time in my life around adolescence and the start of college that I first fell in love with folk music and the fond memories of those days that time. TMOE hits a certain pleasure principle in my brain that influences how I hear and read his music. Actually, it reminds me a lot of Silvio Rodriguez‘s gorgeous Al Final De Este Viaje – an artists and album probably unfamiliar to most Americans for very concrete political reasons. (Silvio is a Cuban born folk musician who has been writing and recording music in Cuba since the 70s. Because of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, Rodriguez was unable to perform in the U.S. until two years ago. Also, because of his left leaning early work, he has been seen as “celebrating” the ideals of Castro’s revolution and, as such, he’s not been embraced by most Cuban-Americans. Personally, as the son of Cuban immigrants, I think his music has a lot of layers and can’t be so easily co-opted or associated with anyone one historical or political cause. Even Dylan, whose songs were often regarded as the anthems of the Civil Rights Movement and the 60s counter-culture, was always quick to acknowledge that he wasn’t trying to be the poet laureate of any political cause but merely expressing the sentiment of the moment/era.) Al Final De Este Viaje (rough translation is “At the end of this Journey”) is a series of backwards looking (even to the vestiges of Cuba’s colonial days) songs about love, loss, and Romantic (i.e. Byron-esque) Idealism. The convergence between the work of Rodriguez and Matsson hinges (for me) on this interplay between idealism and love and the (often) rude awakening to reality, with its concomitant by-products of despondency, loss of faith in ideals, and then a renewed appreciation of power of emotions and ideas but seasoned with a mature perspective. In many ways this is sort of text-book folk music – songs that tells stories of history, personal growth, political movements, and moral questioning. TMOE’s work is far less political but it does evoke a calculated introspection. All ruminating aside, TMOE crafts some gorgeously lush and yet simple tracks that will supply pleasant accompaniment to days of pleasant relaxation.
To listen to The Tallest Man On Earth’s There’s No Leaving Now it its entirety click here.
(Also, if you are curious to hear Silvio Rodriguez’s Al Final De Este Viaje, you can click here. I think even if you don’t know Spanish the power of his music transcends language.)