The Tallest Man on Earth
The Wild Hunt
(Dead Oceans; 2010)
By Lindsay Zoladz | 30 April 2010
If, like me, the late afternoon sediment at the bottom of your RSS feed has rendered you an inadvertent scholar of celebrity beef, you already know that last week Joni Mitchell gave an interview to the LA Times in which she said of Bob Dylan, “[He’s] not authentic at all. He’s a plagiarist and his name and voice are fake.” Never mind that this is forty years past the point of timeliness, never mind your Baudrillard kneejerk, never mind that music’s most famous heckler said it a hell of a lot more succinctly back in ’66—it’s actually a revealing and strangely relevant barb. Folk music’s always had a complex about authenticity.
And while the same could be said of all music or art for that matter, folk is inherently rooted in impossible contrasts between smallness and largeness, between ordinariness and mythology, the saltiest grit and the most cumulus elsewheres. There’s an inherent contradiction, a confused but persistent demand for our folk heroes to be simultaneously real and fake. So much of what makes Dylan (and a lot of folk artists before and after him) great is a winking acknowledgment of this impossibility, and a conviction that the only thing to do with it is to have a little fun. Because when it comes right down to it, the upturned corners of Dylan’s snide mouth seem to ask us, time and again: Isn’t everyone who puts pen to paper—or finger to keyboard, or really anyone who opens their mouth long enough—inherently at least a little bit of a fake? And isn’t that sort of the best and worst part of self-expression through music or language? So Joni, with all due respect: who gives a shit?
Even if we shouldn’t care, though, we still get caught up in this impossible desire for authenticity. Think of the past decade’s obsession with freak folk, and indie media’s subsequent obsession with reconciling the genre’s personae with the actual people who created them. (What do Devendra and Natalie Portman talk about? How is America’s favorite harpist dating the guy who wrote “Jizz in My Pants”?) At their most insidious, these petty tangents threaten to overtake the conversations about the actual art. And, in the 00s, even folk artists who found they were lumped outside of the “freak” camp experienced a lot of handwringing over authenticity. Remember the whole New Dylan pageant of the early-to-mid part of the decade, and how the crown was snatched from the heads of M. Ward or Conor Oberst at the vaguest inkling that they were trying too hard? That feels insidious in its own way—in that case achieving the consensus of authenticity would have been finding an impossible balance between paying homage to Dylan without aping him outright. It’s no easy task, especially considering the selective memory most people have about Dylan in the 60s; who’s to say that unreleased version of Nashville Skyline with Johnny Cash isn’t just Him & Him Vol. 1? So, I’m with you: the last thing we need in this crisp new decade is a record that makes us drag out the New Dylan horse and give it another sad thwack. But luckily for us, The Wild Hunt, the record that has provoked this preamble, is immediate and arresting enough to make us forget, for the span of its short duration, anything but the fact that it is really good.
The Tallest Man on Earth comes to us with a classic folk lie built into his moniker. A simple Google image search confirms that he is, in fact, a pretty normally statured Swedish dude named Kristian Matsson—whose persona just so happens to be a gangly scarecrow stitched together from the stuff folk’s been made of since the beginning of time. It’s nothing new, but on The Wild Hunt it’s executed unflinchingly and exceptionally well. Matsson’s bleat sounds a bit like the prettiest tones of an ambulance siren, and you’ll know 30 seconds into the album’s first track whether you think that a selling point or a deal-breaker.
These ten songs find our hero in the same tried-and-true folk predicament he seems doomed to repeat over and over again, like an animated .gif of Sisyphus: the act of leaving a woman he never intended to stay with for very long in the first place. The record’s full of this stuff, all this sacrificing the terrestrial life for that of the wandering poet. Take “Love Is All,” which derives its title not from a saccharine perspective but from the line “Love is all, from what I’ve heard, but my heart’s learned to kill.” Later in the track, he’s second-guessing the sacrifices of his lifestyle, singing, “I said I could rise from the harness of our goals.” His voice, stitches deep within it soon to rip violently apart, seems to say that he’s finding it harder to do that than he’d ever imagined.
It’s a shame the record ends with its one miss, the spell-breakingly overwrought piano ballad “Kids on the Run.” It’s the only track that features any instrument but a guitar, and were it not so maudlin it could have been a stunning halt to the pattern. Instead, you’re better off letting the disc flip and cleansing your palate with another listen to opener “The Wild Hunt.” It’s a simple and affecting exploration of the issue that drives the album: the isolation of the writer, the tension between the folk myth and a normal life. There’s the pastoral setting one would expect of such a song (“I will sleep out in the glade just by the giant tree”), and the moment of reluctantly leaving the past behind for a stroll down a much-mythologized path (“I left a nervous little boy out on the trail today / He’s just a mortal to the shoutin’ cavalcade.”)
What makes the record work is his acknowledgment that he’s just one more voice in that cavalcade, one that neither tries to hide or overemphasize the influence of the other shouts that came before its own. The Tallest Man on Earth is not Bob Dylan; he is not, despite his name, trying to create a persona that towers highest. And of course, even simplicity of persona is a stylistic choice—it’s silly to suggest that it’s more “authentic” than its opposite. But whether or not Kristian Matsson is actually sleeping underneath a giant tree right now is irrelevant; in mining the tensions of folk’s split personality, he’s created something with its own beautiful truth: an impossibly intimate myth.