The Tallest Man On Earth: Henry St. [Album Review]

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The Tallest Man On Earth
Henry St.
ANTI- [2023]

In the title track of The Tallest Man on Earth’s 7th album, Henry St. Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson drops the façade for a moment, acknowledging that “I’m a little dude in the scape of songs/I know I’m wrong, I just feel it right.” While Matsson has described himself as a “stubborn optimist,” or as the song puts it “I swim the world in my wishing well,” here the singer sounds like he’s close to accepting defeat, because “I just don’t know if I can take it anymore.” But the real surprise here is that Matsson, whose primary instrument is folk-styled, finger-picked acoustic guitar, is singing over piano, played by Phil Cook.

Henry St. follows Matsson’s debut on ANTI-, an album where the songwriter set aside his own songs to release an album full of covers, Too Late for Edelweiss, revealing a wide array of influences, from Lucinda Williams and Jackson Browne to The National and Bon Iver. While The Tallest Man on Earth has often found Matsson’s DIY spirit expressed in his solo recordings, often singing and playing his guitar at the same time in one microphone, here on Henry St. we hear his first recordings in a band setting. Produced by Sylvan Esso’s Nick Sanborn, Matsson is joined by Cook, Ryan Gustafson on guitars, lap steel and ukelele, TJ Maiani on drums, Adam Schatz on sax, and two who’ve played with Bon Iver, CJ Camerieri on horns and Rob Moose on strings.

The result is nice blend of a full band take on folk pop for tracks like “In Your Garden Still,” “New Religion,” and “Goodbye,” but much of the time Matsson’s vocals and guitar stylings frame the music in a way that far removed from they way he’d deliver them live solo, with helpful musical embellishments that enhance his songs. The underlying musical hook of the single, “Looking for Love” is an fast finger-picked guitar line, that would stand up nicely in live performance, but works nicely here with Sanborn’s noisy additions except maybe for the studio dissonance at the end. “Every Little Heart” is likewise centered by Matsson’s guitar playing, but benefits from Maiani’s snappy drum rhythms, and “Major League” even sounds like a fast picked banjo, although there’s no mention of that instrument.

Lyrically, that last track is a celebration of all things “America,” from a reference to a “Randy Newman song,” and the suggestion that “Cleveland was the place to be,” a suggestion of the way some who hope to make it big time view our country as a place to achieve recognition. But at his best, Matsson finds a curious way to turn phrases in unexpected ways. For instance, “Bless You,” is a song to old romantic partner so that “in love, there is the catch to bless you softly when you fly…” so that he can find a graceful way to “nod and gently say goodbye.” Otherwise he’s overcome with darker emotions because “life is a drunken bird in neon light,” where the songwriter is left to “dance with a wrecking ball on this lonesome side of times.” Matsson retuned to Sweden to tend his garden as he waited for the pandemic shutdown, and images from nature, the wonder of natural life provide a healing respite from all the chaos in the world. And the gentle, melodic folk pop of The Tallest Man on Earth on this album springs from that earthy resolve and energy, like the world returning to life after a dark, cold winter.

“Major League” / “Looking For Love” / “In Your Garden’s Still”

Sufjan Stevens / Damien Jurado / Iron & Wine

Too Late For Edelweiss (2022) / Dark Bird Is Home (2015)

Official Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Bandcamp | ANTI-

Brian Q. Newcomb

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