Inasmuch as anyone can blame him for at least a quarter of the entirety of pop music, the dubious honor of the progentiro of the straw man musical term ‘lo-fi’ has to be given to Paul McCartney. His inherent uncoolness when to compared to John Lennon or George Harrison, saying nothing of the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan, made his late ‘60s quest for the highest fidelity Beatles and post-Beatles recording possible a sort of catchy, if not idiotic, narrative about why his late period Beatles work were the worst, even though they weren’t. If Lennon was cool and McCartney wasn’t, then hi-fi can’t be either. Thus, lo-fi, in all its semantic glory.
Questions of fidelity should follow Kristian Matsson, aka Tallest Man On Earth, around since, up until this point, his output has been conscientiously unfidelitied, ragged and pitchy enough in places to impose a theme upon his music. His last record, The Wild Hunt, was confirmation that working within such a framework can yield illustrious results, especially when dealing primarily with two tracks (vox, guitar). But if that’s true then There’s No Leaving Now, Matsson’s third record, defines that great cliff at which lo-fi falls from the peaks stylistic accompaniment to the depths of brand-ish crutch.
The man Matsson has most often been referred to in the young history of his artistic moniker is Bob Dylan. This seems strange, since Dylan never purposefully subscribed to a specific recording method in order to achieve a particular sound. But on There’s No Leaving Now, Matsson makes the differences between he and Robert Zimmerman readily apparent: Matsson may have the gift of understated, poignant wordplay, but his sonic territory is much less assured and confident. Instead of the riotous “King of Spain” there’s the inviting but slightly faux “Revelation Blues.” The obfuscating of Matsson’s mix would be less annoying if the songs were less inviting and well-layered. But if songs like “Little Brother” cloud what could be a perfectly clear guitar plucking melody with the distracting soft-focus, it makes Leaving Now seem less the work of an artist and more the work of someone seeking to follow in footsteps.
But if the aesthetic surroundings are what keep the album from achieving the highs of Matsson’s previous fare, more comforting is that the songwriting spring that brought forth “Burden of Tomorrow” has not run dry. While he may be surrounding his spare melodies with more off-putting flavors, there’s little denying the key-changing troubadour earnestness of “Wind and Walls.” There are some half welcome country twangs, as on lead single, and best song about time traveling in a while, “1904.” The slide is much less welcome on the next song, “Bright Lanterns,” which seems uninspired and slightly off-kilter for the normally hurtling artist. Of course Matsson’s paradigm of “faster is better” paradoxically completely falls flat when he takes a seat at the ivory, as the title track on this record, just as “Kids on the Run” was to The Wild Hunt, is such a stupifyingly sweet and well put together ballad it makes one wonder why on Earth Matsson ever picked up a guitar. But perhaps the used of piano once every Tallest Man album is some ingenious design; unable to craft a whole album of ballads, Matsson is contented with teasing out the beauty he can bring when unencumbered by any effects at all, save a baby grand.
It’s that completely stripped honesty that plays best to Tallest Man on Earth’s strongest stories and songs. “Wind and Walls” and the title track do their best to tear down the soft-focus Nico-style aesthetic that muddies a good portion of the album, and they’re a thankful reminder of all that Matsson can do. The desire to go lo-fi for Matsson may serve a few different purposes, but most reasonable is the vague insecurity that the songs don’t necessarily work without an added element. In this case Matsson could learn from the people he tries to hard to emulate. Those artists, Nico and Dylan most specifically here, didn’t worry about owning up to an artistic history. Kristian Matsson doesn’t necessarily have their specific pedigree, but the Swede does have a certain poignancy to his verse that many others don’t. His quest is to quit gilding his songwriting lily with tried lo-fi signifiers.
The Tallest Man on Earth – There’s No Leaving Now tracklist:
- “To Just Grow Away”
- “Revelation Blues”
- “Leading Me Now”
- “Bright Lanterns”
- “There’s No Leaving Now”
- “Wind and Walls”
- “Little Brother”
- “On Every Page”