Review Summary: Damned be this wind, it's still movin' on in to the bones in the bed of my soul.
Whenever a folk artist reaches a certain level of success or releases an impressive album, comparisons with Bob Dylan seem to be inevitable. We saw it a few years back with Conor Oberst, and years before that with Elliott Smith. Currently, the artist that garners the most Dylan comparisons is Swedish folkie Kristian Matsson, whose stage name is The Tallest Man On Earth. With Smith and Oberst, the nods to Dylan were based primarily on their genre and songwriting/lyrical techniques. Matsson's similarities are more aesthetic, as the aspect of his music that gets the most attention is his voice, which is similar to Dylan's. However, Matsson has shown himself to be a far more accomplished musician than Dylan was at his age.
Dylan never was too skilled of a guitar player or singer; his greatest strength was in his words. Matsson, while his voice is similar to Dylan's in tone, has a certain way of delivering his lyrics that seems to give them more power and meaning, whereas Dylan's words were powerful even with his monotone delivery. I said all that to say this: Matsson appears to throw himself into his music; the energy on Shallow Grave, even on the mellower songs, is something to behold, and to see such a new artist already reaching such impressive levels of songwriting is great. Matsson's lyrics are earthy poems of simpler times; it's not hard to imagine Matsson down at the trainyard singing for coins in a hat, or in the 1960s-era Greenwich Village cafes. His raspy voice is hard to pin down to any single description; a word like "nasal" doesn't work because it has a negative connotation and a term like "higher pitched" doesn't work either because it's honestly hard to tell whether his voice is high pitched or low pitched. The best comparison that could be made is, of course, to Bob Dylan, but not the young Dylan that Matsson so often gets compared to. His voice is similar to Desire/Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan, with his voice at times embodying the raspy quality of the former and the sincere vibrato-tinged quality of the latter. His vocals are loud yet not without a personal and intimate quality, and the earnestness in his voice makes it hard to not be affected in some way by his performances, especially when he sings lines like "I've set my house on fire 'cuz I don't need it anymore," and "I won't be lying when I tell you that I'm a gardener, I'm a man in your eyes, babe."
Matsson's guitar playing is awe-inspiring. While none of the songs on Shallow Grave would be particularly hard for any reasonably talented guitar player to replicate, his ability to complement his words with his guitar is amazing. The storytelling ability he shows is perhaps the album's greatest strength. "The Gardener," which in my opinion is the best song of 2008, is Matsson's most energetic musical performance - it wouldn't be surprising if he breaks a few strings every now and then while performing the last thirty seconds. His chordal work in the song is great, as he plays around with the higher strings while keeping the root notes the same. The fingerpicking in "The Sparrow and the Medicine" sees Matsson at his most skillful and creative, and "This Wind" shows Matsson's penchant for the strategic placing of minor chords within songs that are otherwise cheerful. The penultimate chorus lyric is sang twice, the first time with an uncertain minor chord and the second time with a triumphant major chord, an example of two completely different moods within a few seconds of each other. Matsson's guitar playing combined with his vocal delivery make him one of music's best bards.
The only thing that could be considered a negative is the production; sometimes Matsson's vocals can seem grating because they're too loud in the mix, primarily on "Pistol Dreams," which is otherwise one of the album's best tracks. However, the album is basically just Matsson and his guitar and for the most part the production is perfect, with its crackles and static adding to the album's rustic feel. Shallow Grave is certainly one of the most intimate listens of 2008, and it's great to see positive reviews for this album on sites like Pitchfork. Matsson has proven himself to be an immensely talented artist and hopefully he can keep showing this sort of quality on later albums. Shallow Grave has a wide appeal, and it's almost impossible not to fall in love with at least one of the album's songs. To take a page out of Matsson's earthy similes, The Tallest Man On Earth is like the morning sun in the forest - a myriad of moods and colors, and a shaft of light through the leaves.