REVIEW: The Tallest Man on Earth - "There's No Leaving Now"

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The Tallest Man On Earth - There's No Leaving Now
Record Label - Dead Oceans
Release Date - June 12, 2012

Simple records are rarely beautiful.  Underneath the scruff and scowl of Elliott Smith’s releases you are asked to find the humanity—you struggle for transcendence like Smith.  If Willis Earl Beale’s record from earlier this year taught us anything, it should be that stripping everything away doesn’t necessarily yield consistency.  So, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Tallest Man on Earth’s releases have been steadily gaining in their complexity.  Yet, the brilliant veneer of simplistic instrumentation belie the gut-wrenching intricacy of Kristian Matsson’s albums.  A subtlety and turn of phrase (musical and lyrical) which has never been more on display than in the beguilingly serene There’s No Leaving Now

An appreciation for this records starts with the last EP by Tallest Man on Earth, Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird, which represented a pivot point in Matsson’s recordings until this point.  An expressionistic guitarist, Matsson carved textures with multiple instruments on the Sometimes EP moving from his jaggedly strummed tunes (on Shallow Graves) and pensive piano (like the emotive closer “Kids on the Run” from The Wild Hunt) to deeply wrought electrics like “The Dreamer” and baroque plucking as on “Thrown Right at Me” on the Sometimes EP.  In light of There’s No Leaving Now, the Sometimes EP feels like the closing of one sound and the opening of another.  What it opens into is the slick guitar work and blending of 60s sounds and baroque musicality of There’s No Leaving Now

You’re going to think of Dylan’s “Corrina, Corrina” when the record pops on.  Matsson has long plumbed the vocal and musical spectrum of our newest Presidential Medal recipient.  However, instead of being inclusive of an entire sound, Matsson seems to find a point of inquiry and expand it.  I wrote about how “Honey Won’t You Let Me In” (from Shallow Graves) appeared to mirror Dylan’s “Lily and the Jack of Hearts.”  And I use these comparisons not to flatten Dylan or the Tallest Man, but because Matsson’s albums seem to work as exploration’s of mood rather than person (as Dylan’s early ones did).  Thus, the function of “Corrina, Corrina” on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan provides a way to understand There’s No Leaving Now.  Amid the rabblerousing and protest, “Corrina, Corrina” is a somber love dirge, a tune of yearning for person rather than political change.  There’s No Leaving Now emerges on the opposite side of this, as the threadbare blues riff blooms in sunlight-filled instrumentation and revelry as on opener “To Just Grow Away” (the aforementioned Dylan-quoting tune).

As the title suggest for “To Just Grow Away,” Matsson plumbs hard fought truths and relationships on There’s No Leaving Now, the music often belying the sorrow underneath the lyrics.  “Criminals” features a hummable, almost jaunty musical score while Matsson narrates a man getting too far ahead of himself.  The wanderlust and abandon, which permeated previous albums, can’t be summoned here.  Indeed, the title implies the futility of running away from your problems, and while these difficulties can feel a bit stagnant at times (like the title track), Matsson’s juxtaposition of a more instrumented and textured musicality against deep remorse and melancholy serve a complexity of songwriting that the Tallest Man on Earth hasn’t hit previously.  

The highlight of the album remains the lonesome “1904,” whose even 4 minutes, encapsulates the baroque musical style – baroque being a highly ornamental style characterized by the combination of disparate things.  In this case, it’s the 60s influenced music with the somber lyrics.  What seems breezy and bountiful turns austere and listless.  This record appears as instantly gratifying as Matsson's other releases, but also feels as if it loses its grip from time to time.  This is part of the point, we're no longer plunging head-long into the blue.  We're waiting on the other, unstable side.  

The apparent simplicity of the album is also its beauty.  Matsson's guitar playing emerges slicker than we've heard it before.  He's avoiding the issue, unable to move, until the closer "On Every Page," a rambling gloomy confession.  Temperamental and restless, "On Every Page" mirrors the album -- trying to put on a good face, to make a goodbye simple.  But it's in this attempt that the complexity of Matsson's voice comes out.  He no longer drives toward the dawn, but appears here multi-faceted, yearning for that same drive, but unable to get there in the same way. 

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