Forget neo-folk, freak-folk, hipster-folk, and all the other hybridised versions of the troubadour’s form. Kristian Matsson – performing under the moniker The Tallest Man On Earth – exudes all the interwoven otherworldly and dirt-raised qualities of the real thing. In his second album, The Wild Hunt, Matsson has made a stunningly genuine folk record that compares favourably to staples of the genre dating back to Bob Dylan‘s The Times They Are A-Changin’.
There’s something disarming and shakily enchanting about listening to a record like this. In its fragile construct – just a voice and a guitar, for the most part – The Wild Hunt brims with endless possibility for missteps. There’s no wall of sound to hide behind, and as such, Matsson comes across as hanging precariously from the highest branches of a burning tree, flashing a cheshire cat grin at the onlookers below.
From the listener’s perspective, the spell is all encompassing; to move or to speak would be to risk upsetting the delicate balance. Matsson – in his earthy lyrics and his devotion to conveying the folkie wanderer’s whimsical yarns – becomes a sage. And in his brittle, purposeful guitar playing, he brings something new to the old palette.
It’s easy to imagine Matsson living off the land, tramping from place to place, singing for his dinner and spending his nights under the stars. On the album opener The Wild Hunt he sings, “And I will sleep out in the glade just by the giant tree to be close to where my spirit’s pulled away.” Improbable, sure, but the illusion is real enough in song.
Matsson’s voice doesn’t compare directly to Dylan’s, but he’s got the gravelly soul and the improbable tenor range down to an off-the-cuff science (not to mention his somehow believable Appalachian drawl, despite his Scandinavian background). More accurately, he fits in nicely with the pack of other folk revivalists doing this same forlorn dance. He’s tougher and more straightforward than Joshua James, and he’s less buttoned up than Elvis Perkins.
The opener and title track sets the tone for the album, introducing subtle banjo accompaniment to ebb and flow in the hollows of the languid and deceptively simple-sounding guitar playing. Matsson sings, “I plan to be forgotten when I’m gone,” hinting at the fleeting nature of life and all its finite minutiae.
Burden Of Tomorrow walks a railroad-track line, flirting with the allure of pop, and it’s the closest the album comes to being swaying and uplifting. Matsson sings, “But, hell, I’m just a blind man on the plains. I drink my water when it rains, and live by chance among the lightning strikes,” and invites smiling sing-alongs with brazen lines like, “Once I held a glacier to an open flame.”
Troubles Will Be Gone gives us a first glimpse at Matsson’s prowess at finger-picking, and a quiet toe tapping can be heard in the soundfield, perhaps a quiet nod to Blackbird. In King Of Spain, he tips his hat to early Dylan, singing about boots of Spanish leather behind a galloping strum pattern.
A Lion’s Heart is the album’s quietest and most inward-turning moment, and every plunked string and buzzing imperfection seems planned with great trepidation. The odd man out (like the title track on Nick Drake‘s Pink Moon) is the closer, Kids On The Run, which features stark piano in place of the six-string. Matsson sings a song of penance: “And the cold sky will write us a song, but will we ever confess what we’ve done?”
But as with any great folk record, it’s not confession or redemption that make up the soul of The Wild Hunt. What matters is the chase; the getting there and back again and living to sing about it.