Shallow Grave

by: The Tallest Man on Earth

The debut by the Tallest Man on Earth (alias Kristian Mattson, a youthful Swede of average height) is one of those albums that is truly difficult to convince yourself was actually made when it was made, and isn't a dusty artifact of a bygone era. The obvious point of reference is early Dylan at his most earnestly folky -- a no-brainer, especially given Mattson's richly gritty, slightly pinched voice and densely imagistic lyrics -- but Shallow Grave also hearkens back further to the rural sources of Dylan' s inspiration, evoking the spirits of pre-war hillbilly folkers and Mississippi country bluesmen, and often more vividly than Dylan himself. The unvarnished but essentially clean recording quality aside, there's little to suggest that these tunes weren't recorded in the American South in the early part of the last century, on the porch of some particularly contemplative backwoods poet. Crucially though, it never feels as though Mattson is playing a character, even if in some sense he clearly is: the hard-won wisdom, sly humor, and deep-seated romance that infuse the Tallest Man' s songs drip from Mattson' s craggy larynx just as artlessly and effortlessly as his fiery, deftly picked guitar and banjo parts flow from his fingers. Interestingly, the duplicitous nature of persona -- and the startling lengths to which we'll go to maintain it -- forms the central thread of the album's most hauntingly resonant song, the tender yet unsettling "The Gardener," whose narrator confesses a string of murders (allegorical or actual) he's committed to preserve his image as "the tallest man" in the eyes of his loved one. Elsewhere, it can be a tall order to unravel the album's fractured narratives or make sense of its pastoral-phantasmagorical imagery (from "Pistol Dreams": "I will boil the curtains to extract the drugs of springtime/But that unicorn, he stirs up as a mule"), but it's hard to mistake the world-weary sentiment at the core of "I Won't Be Found" or the longing underlying the undeniably Dylan-esque "Honey Won't You Let Me In." A key point of disambiguation: while it may be a similarly scratchy acquired taste for some, and it's not exactly easy on the ears, Mattson's voice is a much finer vessel for melody than Dylan's ever was, and he imbues these songs with some excellent ones, immediately hummable tunes that only deepen their appeal with repeated listens. An immensely impressive and likable debut. ~ K. Ross Hoffman

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