Monday, 11 June 2012

The Tallest Man On Earth - There's No Leaving Now

 

Call it subjective lack of lenience, call it severe episodic ADHD, but I can't help but shrug off this niggling idea that folk music will often find itself hitting brick wall after brick wall in the continuing challenge to sound both developable, and in result, interesting. I'm always open to a somber acoustic strum or a warm-hearted cosy-fire delightful piano playing, but with this region of sound comes the challenge of content and ensuring individualistic songs of this manner and nature can work around a much larger album-scale format. It's this grain-of-salt perspective that swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Mattson - real-name of The Tallest Man on Earth - has managed to strike a chord with. His critically-acclaimed follow-up 'The Wild Hunt' demonstrated a keen eye and ear for the more minimalist of song progressions, and also marked Mattson as a man to be admired for his vocal work as much as his instrument playing. To be compared with the likes of Dylan & Bon Iver isn't something that happens every day, but Mattson's talent excels just a mere comparison such as this. 'There's No Leaving Now' is the third album by the Swedish folk-singer, and here, he shows his more experimental - or rather, to think of a better word, considerate - side to both the development and production of his songs. And while the challenge is admirable, the outcome is one that creates mixed feelings.

The first track 'To Just Grow Away' gets things off in a very run-of-the-mill winding-road manner, Mattson's frequent nasally voice carrying through atop the jangling and stretching of acoustics and guitar strings alike. Taking into account a large bulk of this record finds itself nestling on the three-and-a-half minute mark, the somewhat limited usage of instruments and the way they are interlinked and entangled within each other, actually comes across - in this spacious manner - quite respectable and aware of its own limitations. Not that these song lengths have been immediately dictated, but it's good to see a vocalist who shows appreciation for the structure as well as the content. 'Revelation Blues' carries on this same trading of sound with Mattson's personally-direct lyricism, 'I was more than a terror/I was crying too' he sings in the track's latter half, the balance between guitar and piano now more considerate and somber than it had been previous. The vocals continue to push outwards against the music, but beyond Mattson's objective connoting, the sound finds itself stabilized in a somewhat secured confine of instrumentation. There's little transgression or application to something more testing or intriguing to an outsider perspective, and as a result, the album's beginnings feel more inwardly protective and defended as opposed to outward and relatable.

It's more than just a conceptual context that I use this terminology in. From what I hear in the opening few tracks, I get this static vibe from the way Mattson has decided on leading and directing this album straight from the first marker. The patterned playing isn't what discomforts me here, but rather the way in which the album comes across as thinking of itself slightly meaningless, that feels disheartening. It's almost as if Mattson has given too much space for the music to just run on its own treads, and through it, has allowed the somewhat dusty and grainy sound here let it run its course. Thank God then '1904' brings a fresh and slightly more confident shine to the record. The frequent pluck of higher-notated strings - and the way the acoustics bumble along as if caught on some off-road muddy road - is a joyous grin on the face. And further to that, Mattson's word choice actually comes across as both heart-warming yet charmingly baffling. His lyrics: 'And as I lowered down I hear it's a message,' lead on through passages that mix the sensical with the outright striking, 'And it's 1902 just telling people to get out'. The concepts flying whimsically through the record; of reflection, of story-telling and some of emotive detailing are equally intriguing as much as they outright confusing. It's a feature that will undoubtedly divide people depending on how they analyze it, but it's a skill Mattson is able to deliver regardless of how attentive he is about it.

Unfortunately, even highlighters such as this fall victim to one of the album's, and on a wider scale, music's biggest and most dangerous risk when it comes to how a record conveys itself to the listener. And the cause of this risk, is its production. More specifically, the mixing. There are times on this record where I'm not so sure whether it's the instruments or the vocals that should be standing as either the focal-point and epicenter for everything else that goes on around it. 'Bright Lanterns' finds itself the first casualty of this, the gentle guitar playing despite feeling more withdrawn still finds itself muddled alongside Mattson's more bold and enriching singing style. And the production, or rather overuse of it, only adds to the dazzling intensity in which the vocals come across. It's only when you stare deeper into the confines of this music that you truly witness the somewhat empty backing felt here, and all it does is leave a scrutinizingly bitter taste thereafter. Even when 'There's No Leaving Now' lends itself to the emotive story-telling side of things - piano here becoming the dominative instrument of choice - it's Mattson's voice again that almost dissipates the wonderful atmosphere created, back into its most basic and studio-like structure possible. Gone is the potential of leaving the hollow roominess of either the studio or even your own abode, and the track ends up feeling desperate in its struggle for escape.

It's not a constant factor as to why this album struggles to stay appealing, but it's a problem that, in some manner of speaking, anyone would have considered the highest priority for any album. It could easily have been an aesthetic choice on Mattson's part as much as it could have been a miscalculation of sound and leveling, but in combination with the singer-songwriter's manner of song structure - and further to that on this album, the narrower usage of instrumentation and progression - the struggle becomes more and more infectious with the overall quality of the record. 'Little Brother' is a humble and clear example of perfecting said limited instrumentation, but again, the question has to be asked as to where the reasons lay as to the vocal's heightening and positioning on the song's layering. Not that I question Mattson's vocal deliverance. But rather, the decisions and where they lay. What is more important here: the music or the lyrics; the atmosphere or the concept. Closer 'On Every Page' feels like a man at one's end content-wise. Not that I am against the man's gentle and minimal strumming of acoustics here, but the vocals feel as far away from fulfilling and worthy of the empty space left over, it runs a danger on bordering into laziness. Call it what you want - positive or negative - but the way it feels so bare (even for an acoustic solo) is somewhat disheartening and slightly deflating, because it closes an album that hasn't necessarily broadened or expanded since the previous outing.

In fact, 'There's No Leaving Now' actually feels less in both content and direction, here than 'The Wild Hunt'. I admire Mattson for his passionate plucking and strumming of guitar - and more-so for when he decides on laying out his emotions on piano. But where there are some promising grin-churning eye-wandering moments where witty non-sensical subject matter comes across sending you trailing into secondary mindsets, what's left when you take that out of the equation is an album that fails to excite anybody beyond a minor whim of where things will be taken next. The Tallest Man On Earth may be a name that alludes to some stand-out naturism of importance, but if that is in fact Kristian Mattson's objective, I wouldn't say this is the record that delivers on that notion.
~Jordan

6.3

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