[Dead Oceans; 2010]

While a sophomore effort looms, it could be argued that Kristian Matsson is entitled to an evaluation that determines the merit of his music without making lazy comparisons to beloved lamenters of a long-gone yesterday. Here lies my valiant attempt.

After an intriguing experiment with low-fidelity garage rock, Mattson now pens soulful songs as The Tallest Man On Earth. His first album received mostly high marks from members of the critical collective who casually accepted a more selective memory. But even those who bemoaned the singer’s nostalgic nature also remarked that the songwriting was at the very least worthy of conventional correlation. The tracks sport motifs straight out of a storybook, starring an unlikely hero who surpasses expectation. They also adhere to a uniform structure that seldom sheds its serious countenance, effectively working to smother the songster with his own grim depictions. The lead single from his newest disc, The Wild Hunt, offers a change of pace from his world-weary mind. “King of Spain” conveys a more hopeful outlook with pleasures that were largely absent from his previous work. This particular side of Matsson’s persona wields an explosive energy all its own and transcends aesthetic similarities into an era of post-pastiche folk.

If Shallow Grave had Matsson ready to jump, The Wild Hunt is a resolute plunge. But rather than being bummed, Matsson stays unabashedly confident throughout. You can almost hear the Prozac taking effect with his first verse, a frolicking romp through dismal subject matter that will turn heads due to its unexpected pop ambiance. “I plan to be forgotten when I’m gone,” Matsson exclaims as you mutter slack-jawed. Is this the same performer who only years before morosely sang about a Shallow Grave? The bustling second track only furthers the growing disconnect from his downtrodden self as he altruistically promises solace to someone else amidst a starkly upbeat accompaniment.

Emotions erupt frequently during The Wild Hunt, which employs a shocking use of profanity on “You’re Going Back.” Its weighty presence demands the listener’s attention to a track recounting another’s misplaced frustration on an innocent chauffeur. “King of Spain” has Matsson sounding absolutely giddy, screaming with wanton desire. “I walk upon the river like it’s easier than land. Evil’s in my pocket and your will is in my hand,” Matsson brags to us assuredly and dismisses ensuing fallout on “Love Is All.” The slight dip in morale is bolstered by “A Thousand Ways,” a bright and breezy ballad that succinctly showcases the songwriter’s change of heart towards humanity. Matsson’s penchant for blending fantasy and reality remains part of his allure. Figurative delusions are expected and welcome, but blithe allusions to ancient mysticism border on the absurd.

Most unforeseen among an album entirely composed of left turns is a lofty final track that will throw unsuspecting listeners who blindly expected another Shallow Grave. “Kids on the Run” trades guitar strings for piano keys, opting for a more majestic mood. Layers of fuzz scream shoddy production and grate against cringe-inducing grandiosity, narrowly avoiding any self-parody with the singer’s conviction and skilled performance.

Who would have guessed that beneath the rugged exterior laid a beguiling smirk? The Tallest Man On Earth’s second record seems uninhibited and features much lighter fares supplemented by his newfound carefree attitude towards an inevitable downturn. Instead of endlessly pondering his position in the greater scheme of things, Matsson has decided that all will be fine or else he shall continue to sing until the ship sinks. What results is a lively series that succeeds its predecessor by keeping its head above water. Many might have expected another pail of lonesome howls, but Matsson has surprised us all with a work that flips his shtick on its side and briefly eschews convention altogether.