Review Summary: Effortlessly moving, mature, fun and expertly crafted, The Tallest Man on Earth's third release is his most complete yet, and should please purists and those who wanted that little bit more from him alike.
There have been only a few moments in my musical ‘life’ so far during which I’ve been completely aware of just how special an album is going to be before I’ve even finished my first listen. It happened when I was halfway through my first listen of Blood on the Tracks, it happened during the first track of Bon Iver’s second album, and it’s happened maybe a few other times which weren’t quite as memorable. But none of these moments - and I’m aware of the incoming hyperbole, but I think it’s justified – have been quite so profoundly affecting as when I first heard the title track of Kristian Matsson, A.K.A the Tallest Man On Earth’s, latest release. And whilst I’m on something of a hyperbolic roll here, I would also go so far as to say that no artist has crafted 3 such perfectly distinct and perfectly composed album in a row since, well, the man many people think is his closest touchstone – Bob Dylan.
Whilst I’m going to say right now that I’ll be eschewing all Dylan comparisons from here on in, this run of quality in Matsson’s albums is one that I’ve only seen in Dylan’s 60s releases, and that’s saying something. But back to There’s No Leaving Now. Matsson’s third album comes at an interesting point in his career; after his sophomore full-length The Wild Hunt was released to deserved critical acclaim in 2010, it seemed that he had perfected his formula for his one-guitar-one-man folk music, a fact which was rammed home by the release of the, quite frankly, perfect EP Sometimes The Blues Is Just A Passing Bird later on in that year. These releases were so fully realised, so lovingly crafted and with such a lasting effect considering their short lengths that it seemed that The Tallest Man On Earth needed a new direction. What’s most amazing about There’s No Leaving Now, then, is the fact that he simultaneously manages to forge new sonic ground whilst continuing to provide exactly the goods which delighted fans on his first four releases.
The album opener To Just Grow Away, however, might scare a few fans off. After about five seconds of a lone guitar heralding the start of the album, a veritable orchestra, compared to Matsson’s previous work, joins him and we hear a layered sound which we’ve seen nowhere else in the man’s discography, short of the occasional subtle snatch of piano or banjo in the background. The comparison which seems most apposite with regards to the layering on this album seems to be Bon Iver’s second, quasi-self-titled release. In both of these albums, there is a heck of a lot going on sonically, with various different parts and instruments and effects all being delicately placed in the mix. What’s key about this comparison, however, is that much like with Justin Vernon’s masterful mixing, Matsson somehow manages to keep everything busy without sounding crowded. 1904 has a lovely higher, electric guitar part which intermittently joins the driving acoustic rhythm, and it all slots in so well that you almost forget to notice it- in a good way, of course. Wind and Walls, too, another King of Spain-esque strummer, features lapsteel and bass which enter the track so seamlessly that it’s a constant joy to listen to. I could practically list an element of every track as an example here, but it will suffice, I hope, to say that in There’s No Leaving Now, Matsson has added the perfect amount of business to the tracks to keep those who hungered for ‘more’ to his music happy, whilst ensuring that there is still the same solid, guitar-centric base to his tracks which will keep purists happy. Seeing him perform the new songs, sans band, live is proving to be one of the more interesting effects of this new instrumentation, as tracks such as Revelation Blues take on a new form without the woodwind section that accompanies it on the album.
Lyrically, There’s No Leaving Now sees a marked maturation in Matsson’s lyrics, which is saying something considering the already impressive depth in some of his songs’ words, such as the underrated Where I Thought I Met The Angels. The title track features some of his most impassioned vocals yet, with his upper register being firmly tested in the chorus but proving swoon-inducingly equal to the task. Leading Me Now has one of the mellowest atmospheres of any of his songs yet, seeming to be a simple but affecting tale of companionship about Matsson’s horse. Bright Lanterns, however, is the jewel of the album, and one that I suspect many listeners may largely pass over. Featuring lyrics that would absolutely stand up to some of the greatest odes to nature in the English language, the track has not only Matsson’s best overall lyrical performance to date, but also his best line, and one of THE best lines I’ve ever heard in music, in ‘damn, you always treat me like a mountain, stranger’ and the magnificent reversal it performs on the first chorus. If only there were more hints as to what it was really about, but the concrete tends to give way to the abstract with most of The Tallest Man On Earth’s evocative pieces.
I could single out any single element of any single track in turn here and attempt (and fail) to wax lyrical about it for the length of a whole review, but I feel that There’s No Leaving Now really speaks for itself in terms of emotional and musical maturity, astonishing lyrics and fantastic production, all coming together to produce what is one of the two or three truly ‘classic’ albums we’ve had in the last 12 or so years. There’s No Leaving Now may have been misunderstood and not quite risen to by certain music publications (we all know who I mean here.) but for those who really take the time to look under the surface and immerse themselves in the lyrical and sonic soundscapes which Kristian Matsson has created here, they’ll find one of the most sincere, deep and moving albums of, more hyperbole incoming, all time here. It wouldn’t be a review from me if it didn’t finish with an awkwardly implemented reference to a song on the album, so let’s just hope that, in terms of Kristian Matsson’s seemingly exponentially pleasing career, there’s no leaving for a very long time.