So the Tallest Man on Earth decided to don the World’s Largest Pair of Flip-Flops this week, and released his fourth full-length album from a hammock swaying gently in a backyard near you. After 6 years of putting out authentic, gritty, folktastic tracks that have been favorably compared to every idol of the original 60’s folk scene, Sweden’s Kristian Matsson re-emerges with There’s No Leaving Now, and frankly it’s more like a summer beach read than anything of substance. Long-term fans of TMoE will probably feel as let down as they would had Jack Kerouac tossed out a book about horny teenage vampires instead of another great American road novel, but anyone unfamiliar with Matsson’s prior, more satisfying works may find a pleasant enough album of easy background music.
On No Leaving, Matsson abandons the raised-fist urgency of 2008’s Shallow Grave and 2010’s The Wild Hunt for a tamer, more relaxed set of songs. Rather than work the hell out of his acoustic guitar, Matsson here concentrates on muddled jangling and strumming, more content with a drifty, far-away sound than with the immediacy we’ve kind of come to expect. While his voice maintains its distinctive high nasal twang, there’s no longer an edge to it - TMoE has interrupted his restless wandering to take a bit of a nap, and apparently wrote some music in his sleep. Every song on Shallow Grave is a clone of Dylan’s “Idiot Wind,” but you’d be hard pressed to find an ounce of Dylan or Guthrie in any of the 10 new tracks. The lead single, a sunny, happy “1904,” is just, well, there’s no easy way to say this - it’s just boring. “Revelation Blues” is actually a decent little song, but there are two sides to that comment. Never heard of Tallest Man on Earth? Then it’s a bright, pleasing song, which has no real clarity or sincerity. Longing for something that could pass for The Freewheelin’ Tallest Man on Earth? Sorry, it ain’t here.
Even the tranquil EP Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird had an edge to it, and the song structures were deceptively complex. In fact, if you want summer TMoE songs to listen to, you may be better served digging that one back out. Even throwing in a pedal guitar on No Leaving’s “Bright Lanterns,” which is affable but largely forgettable, doesn’t help add any depth to the song; for the quiet title track, Matsson puts away his guitar and accompanies his strained vocals with a sparse piano, but that also fails to bring emotion to an otherwise flat song.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a beach novel - it serves a purpose, and it doesn’t require any deep thinking to wrap your brain around it - you have to manage your expectations going in. When you come home from that training run or your long bike ride and turn off your Japandroids/Hot Chip/Santigold ass-kicker iPod mix, you could do a lot worse than curling up in the hammock with There’s No Leaving Now. Unfortunately for fans of The Tallest Man on Earth’s gristier work, you could also do a lot better.