Kristian Matsson, when asked why he chose the stage moniker “The Tallest Man on Earth,” replied, “When you have a name like that, you have to write good music.”
It seems to be working.
Matsson’s albums have combined an arching and insightful songwriting with nimble fingerpicking, passionate pace, and clever open tunings. He has drawn comparisons to early folk legends such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and then has stepped past them and developed his own style of song, marked by his spiking and gravelly voice. His second studio album, The Wild Hunt, received praise from critics and fans alike, helping to establish him as a notable figure in the folk world.
Matsson is a Swedish native, which contributes heavily to his songwriting. As with many who speak English as a second language, Matsson ascribes a special significance to words that is often lost on native English speakers. As a result, many of his songs come across as abstract poetry and require a surprising amount of thought to understand. For example, one track titled “Thousand Ways” uses clever turns of phrase to personify the moon as a persistent and eternal lover, while “The Drying of the Lawns” poignantly uses the title image as a metaphor for unrequited affection.
Matsson’s “poetry through song” may reflect a shift away from the largely shallow popular music of the last two decades. The ubiquity of flash-in-the-pan pop is fading; in its place, singer-songwriters like Matsson are gaining a foothold, often with poignant and difficult lyrics set to simple tunes. This simplicity and honesty draws listeners from all sorts of genres and musical backgrounds—including the Christian worship scene. There is a sense in which exceptional art is beautiful and life-giving in its own way, and Mattson’s music exudes a pagan piety that points to something greater than itself. The Tallest Man on Earth strums that same golden thread that Wordsworth plucks when he laments being shackled to the world—“I would rather be a pagan suckled in a creed outworn; so might I, standing on this pleasant lea, have glimpses that would make me less forlorn.”
Many of Matsson’s songs reflect this reverence for the created world— whether as nature, music, or the human experience. Often drawing on folk myths and legends to help craft and frame his lyrics, Mattson sees the world in much the same way as Saint Francis and G.K. Chesterton, with a reverence for “things as they are” that is both refreshing and challenging. In “To Just Grow Away,” the opening track of his most recent album, Matsson celebrates a continued and maturing progression through life: “Like a rain to help a river, but a river’s so hard to please. But I’ve grown to see the diamonds you’ve thrown in just for me.”
On the other hand, sometimes Matsson’s songs can come across as needlessly abstract and esoteric, and others can seem maudlin. These tracks, however, are usually spaced out within the album in such a way as to not distract from the rest of the songs. Part of this stems from the fact that Matsson seems to have all the symptoms of the typical poetic manic-depression; one of his most acclaimed tracks, “Love Is All,” laments that, “I’ll throw it in the current that I stand upon so still; love is all from what I’ve heard, but my heart’s learned to kill.” While certainly carrying a darker tone, Matsson isn’t whining; rather, he is sincerely and honestly addressing an aspect of the human experience—the disillusionment most of us feel at one time or another.
Matsson’s greatest strength and greatest weakness is his songwriting. His music—despite its technical prowess—comes across as exceedingly simple, if not unconventional. Matsson seems to delight in pulling his guitar into new and creative tun- ing alignments, while making it sound like the easiest thing in the world. However, his songwriting is deep, in the sense the Desert Fathers were deep or jagged mountains are deep— a depth stemming from a thoughtful simplicity. In some instances, it is easy to become lost in this depth and walk away with the impression that you heard something significant, but you have no idea what that thing is.
C.S. Lewis once said that, “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express that same delight in God which made David dance.” Perhaps the most valuable thing that The Tallest Man on Earth can do for a Christian is to express that same rare emotion, that same raw experience of created life, in ways we have not thought of. Our modern problem is no longer that we will miss the forest for the trees, but that we will miss the forest for the nymphs. Matsson’s music helps to combat this malaise; it helps us to appreciate the sea for Poseidon. It highlights the Creation, and we in turn can highlight the Creator.
Matsson conveys a staggering range of emotion and experience in his music. When listening to the “King of Spain,” one feels compelled to dance and laugh at the tale of a man dream- ing of being royalty; after listening to “Little Brother,” the same person would be prepared to break down and cry in a fit of hometown nostalgia and pessimism. Matsson is exceptional in that he never tries to pull all of life into his music; instead, he takes snapshots and fleeting emotions and these become his songs—carefully selected and fleshed out as far as they will go. Because of this focus on the individual trees of life, one can catch a glimpse of the forest, where every grove is a temple and every wind is an ancient spirit. It’s a perspective that perhaps could only be seen by The Tallest Man on Earth.