The Tallest Man on Earth
Dark Bird is Home (Dead Oceans)
There’s a spot on The Tallest Man on Earth’s 2012 KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic session where he—Swedish folk songwriter Kristian Matsson—makes a mistake. He gets stuck and starts a line over—“Well, there were days when you thought we would just go under / and the weekends—the weekends that you never understood.” It’s at the end, and it makes me cry.
Matsson’s album There’s No Leaving Now was released shortly after I moved to Moscow, Russia. I was twenty-five, and I’d moved myself to a completely foreign city and culture alone, not yet sure what would meet me there.
I comforted myself through repetition that year, a blanket I curled into at home and dragged along on the metro. Usually, I wrapped myself in music, listening to the same songs and albums over and over, often on repeat. Sometimes, it felt unhealthy. Moscow was both the best and most difficult experience of my life. I built beautiful friendships, proved my independence, and lived a lifetime of stories. But I also struggled to learn Russian, trudged through every type of precipitation you can imagine, and fell apart, though undercover, still working and checking in with family.
The rawness of his voice over the delicate guitar kept me listening. He often records at home, so I imagined him like Springsteen tape-recording Nebraska. I loved the bravery and vulnerability of that sound. I loved his intention, as if each song was the most important thing in the world, and the desperation, even in his happiest songs. His lyrics are ripe with place, nature and landscapes, birds and trees. I listened to them on airplanes to Paris and Athens and Rome, places I thought would make me better. It was mostly that one mistake, though, the repetition of a line, the exposure, faltering on a big radio show, that resonated with me: I didn’t understand Moscow; even scarier, I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I didn’t know if I’d make it. I thought I might go under.
Matsson’s latest album Dark Bird is Home, released May 2015, moves away from those lonely, tinny, home-grown guitar parts. He recorded in rural Sweden and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, adding parts and musicians as he went. When listening, it’s hard to nail the album down to a singular sound or place. I was surprised and disappointed when I heard the first single, “Sagres,” without that rawness. I worried he was starting to sound like everyone else.
There are still a few quiet, folksy tracks. The song of a relationship at its end, “Beginners,” sounds the most like his earlier work. The title track does, too, until the outro when he’s joined by a gradually building drum. “Little Nowhere Town” features Matsson on piano, but eventually that stillness is supported by another voice: “…selling emptiness to strangers / Is a little bit warmer than my dreams.” It almost sounds like a choir.
As I listened, though, Dark Bird is Home grew on me. Seeing Matsson live in Kansas City helped, proving that despite a new full sound and band, his music’s backbone remains the same. His voice and guitar—which are so unified he’s said he often records them at the same time—are the focus, and the band complements that, making the songs bigger and dreamlike. Dark Bird is Home surrounds listeners.
Matsson still deals in beautifully tangled imagery, often nature imagery. He’s a poet, ambiguous and layered, a lyricist able to make listeners feel something they can’t always explain, what I believe a song worth listening to should do. He still writes of fields and gardens, mountains and valleys. Many of the songs were written on tour, so settings move, sometimes multiple times a song. We go “deep into the Rockies,” see “Missouri light,” and “Remember Arizona” on the track “Timothy.” In “Slow Dance,” we’re “high in the trees” and near the beach.
What remains, too, and what draws me to Matsson’s music—especially when I lived in Moscow—is hope despite solitude and sadness. In “Darkness of the Dream,” he writes of both: “I feed on the sunlight / But sunlight just drives me away.” A few lines later, he seems encouraged that “The summer is deep / And the memories still / The garden is full / And I’m way over hills,” but ends with “I’m just the same.” He’s left asking, “I’m sure I’ll sleep when all this goes under/But now, will I sleep alone?” The relationship in “Beginners” yearns for connection: “And I know I shouldn’t be here but I want to be your man.” But in the end, both parties keep moving: “So suddenly we are gone / looking out for some wave / you and I, we belong on these wild and wonderful trails.”
The full band isn’t a desperate attempt to hide, fill, or cover sadness, but to give it greater space. The sound of this album is enveloping, and songs are even bigger live, growing Matsson’s already memorable stage presence, into which he throws himself fully, vocal delivery so intense he sometimes seems physically pained. During the Kansas City show, there was silence between each song. He called it polite; I call it palpable. No one wanted to break it, that silence and stillness he made with sound. In “Sagres,” he sings, “This silence I suppose / gonna hold me to the ground / where I’m forced to find the still / in a place you won’t be round.” This album leans into stillness, but he’s not alone. That specific “you” may not be there anymore, but others will. The chorus ends with “Come on”—he invites us in.
There’s hope in that stillness, in that solitude. An album with “dark bird” in the title certainly isn’t happy, but Matsson’s music has always held competing emotions. “Singers,” a song about his grandfather, admits uncertainty, but concludes, “Guess we’re only in beginnings of a wildness to return / I rise above it and I feel a little lighter / Guess we’re always in the phases of the things we’d never learn / But we’re only gone like singers are till springtime.” We won’t learn it all, but the singers—birds, I assume, so many birds in Matsson’s songs—will be back. “Darkness of the Dream,” the title track and album-closer, is bittersweet, but hopeful in its ending: “And suddenly the day gets you down / But this is not the end, no this is fun / There still are towers in the valley / Still winds down the stream / Still we’re in the light of day / with our ghosts within.”
The Tallest Man on Earth is still The Tallest Man on Earth. And getting taller. Perhaps that openness to duality is what Matsson is asking from us—his fans, especially those who have followed him from the beginning. We can hold sadness and hope. Can we embrace the bigger sound supporting his delicate and honest guitar and vocals?
When I saw Matsson in Kansas City, it was from the front row. I met him afterward, told him about There’s No Leaving Now and Moscow. What I only realized when I got home that night, was that the concert was two days from the day I moved back to the U.S. Two years later, there are lyrics I can’t hear without seeing Moscow. I didn’t go under in Moscow; I made it. And there I was, front row. Moving back wasn’t without struggle: Reverse culture shock is real and depression follows us. I’ve learned to hold happiness and sadness and fear and hope and faith since returning, emotions all in his songs. Already, I notice lyrics from this new album layering themselves into my story.
Dark Bird is Home’s album cover—the first not to feature a horizon—is a photo of a weathered house and woman wearing a dark coat, coming home, we presume from the title. But even without the horizon, we can be sure The Tallest Man on Earth is going somewhere. He’s traveling, he’s moving. Others are joining. “But this is not the end,” he sings as the album closes. We don’t know where he’s going next, but I can only hope he writes songs about it.