A little more than a dozen years ago, Kristian Matsson—the Swedish singer-songwriter better known as the Tallest Man on Earth—was so captivating it has become his retroactive curse. Onstage alone, with so much room to roam, Matsson was a baying young wolf, shouting his hymns of hopeful despair and existential reckoning above galloping acoustic figures. He was pure magnetism, a tangle of charisma and candor not unlike Bob Dylan or Jonathan Richman. What’s more, his atavistic early albums actually captured that crackle, direct-to-tape studio wonders that suggested he was forever at your command. His career since those youthful days, though, has involved a difficult trick. As Matsson has documented divorce, isolation, and professional tedium in subsequent albums, he’s incorporated horns and strings, drums and electronics into his strident approach. But how do you maintain that singular verve while expanding your musical palette? Or how do you mature without stiffening?
Recorded at the edge of 40, Henry St. is Matsson’s most robust answer to that question yet. At the very least, it sounds terrific. With imaginative production from Sylvan Esso’s Nick Sanborn and accompaniment from a sterling cast of (largely) North Carolina ringers, Matsson has never before enjoyed such a sprawl of musical settings. He bounds through a scrim of diaphanous static and assuring piano on “Looking for Love,” his nylon strings dancing like the old days. Drummer TJ Maiani shapes a deep country-soul pocket for Matsson’s heartsick croon during “Goodbye.” And his sublime piano duet with Phil Cook on the title track feels like waking from a bittersweet dream to rub the sleep from your eyes and ponder what you’re doing here, alive and aging while still full of wonder. Emerging from pandemic isolation on his farm in Sweden, Matsson desired the comradeship of collaboration; this crew, in turn, responded with thoughtful circumstances for his idiosyncratic voice.
But across the 42 minutes of Henry St., Matsson rarely responds to them in kind. To put it plainly, the writing is just bad, as though it were some slapdash afterthought to the strong instrumentals already in place. Matsson loves a nature metaphor, but they don’t love him back here. They’re either so hackneyed your eyes glaze over upon hearing them (“You’ll be the rolling cloud/I’ll be the endless sky,” etcetera) or so messy and inchoate you miss the music’s pleasure while trying to work your way through them. “I’ve found rain for my burning pain/I’ve found the dry grass for my burning love,” he sings at one point, interrupting the easy canter of “Goodbye” with what sounds like a cure for … pubic lice? He confronts “the river of time”; he hurls unnamed things “into the fire”; he pursues some “light at the end of the world.” If you find yourself laughing, consider it a service, levity from texts that offer little else. As the music has grown, the writing at its center has withered into a rumple.
In the second half of “Slowly Rivers Turn,” Matsson stumbles into a perspicacious moment of self-diagnosis. It’s another warm country-soul number, with electric guitars cutting a jagged path between Terry Allen and Studio One. In one of the record’s lone bits of evocative imagery, Matsson watches his old self float downstream as he contemplates who he might become. “I don’t want to be the yeller of my longings/I don’t want to be the sailor of my past,” he sings in the grandly swiveling bridge, falsetto cracking with honest concern on that last bit.
But this ham-fisted imitation of himself is exactly what he seems to be on Henry St.—the confused and divorced dude waking up to someone new on opener “Bless You,” the restless mortal seeking the typical comforts of companionship on the subsequent “Looking for Love,” the permanently heartbroken guy considering how he might taste to vultures on closer “Foothills.” He puts a bow around what he doesn’t want to be, then fails to write anything that goes beyond it. “I never found a way around myself,” he mutters at the same song’s end, a self-rebuke that defines Henry St.’s dead-end.
Matsson once suggested new energy and possibility inside a field pronounced dead only slightly less than jazz—the guy with the acoustic guitar, bleating his feelings like they were breaking news. The writing ferried that same urgency, the sense that he was trying to transmit something crucial before we were all out of time. That frisson, at least for now, is gone. Instead, Matsson muddles through a mess of word salad that, charitably, feels cautionary. For so long, Matsson has been, as he sings at one point, “a little dude in the scape of songs.” In the prolonged quest to become something bigger, to expand that scape, he has forsaken the tiny core that once made him so compelling.
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