The Swedes Are Coming
When you first listen to The Tallest Man on Earth (who’s actually a 5’7” Swede named Kristian Matsson) you could be mistaken into believing that he’s probably mimicking Bob Dylan, so similar is the 29-year-old’s singing style and songwriting to the legendary musician. In fact, some critics feel exactly that way and Matsson, in his three-record career till now, has often faced that criticism—that he channels Dylan. But a closer listen to any of his albums, particularly this year’s There’s No Leaving Now, can change your perception. Hugely influenced by American folk giants such as Dylan and Woody Guthrie he may be, but Matsson’s songs are all about where he belongs and his local Swedish environment.
Like many of his compatriots in music, The Tallest Man on Earth sings in English. His songs are firmly rooted in the locale of where he lives—a small Swedish town; his music, particularly on his first two albums (Shallow Grave and The Wild Hunt) is sparse and his songs balladic. But unlike his influences—which are quite obviously American folk music—his lyrics are often deliciously ambiguous, melding together nature, emotions and wise thoughts. His voice is raspy and nasal, which explains the comparisons with Dylan, but then that perhaps, is the charm that makes his songs endearing. On the new album, There’s No Leaving Now, Matsson has departed a bit from the sparse minimalism of his earlier work and added more instruments and layers to the sound.
The Tallest Man on Earth sounds even better live. At this year’s Newport folk fest, he did a show on a small stage but it drew so many people that the local police had to be called in for controlling the crowd. Matsson’s live shows see him switching between half a dozen guitars and a piano and for one who’s essentially a folksy musician they are frenetically energetic. Check out some videos and you’ll see what I mean.
I’ve been listening to The Tallest Man on Earth for much of the past week, delving into his back catalogue as well as the new album but that not the only Swede who’s been on my recent playlist. Like Matsson, Jens Lekman has been around for a bit. He lives in a Gothenburg and has two albums out—2004’s When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog and 2007’s Night Falls Over Kortedala. But Lekman is no folkie. His music is unabashed pop with melodies that linger in your head. Blessed with a baritone voice and an ability to write songs that are at once sweet and pop-ish as well as thoughtful, he tells stories, often with an underlying wit and dry humour. On his first full-length, he has songs that reference his environment. On Do You Remember the Riots?, Lekman refers to the protests and riots that broke out in 2001 during the EU summit in Gothenburg but the song is about dumping a girlfriend during those tumultuous times!
Elsewhere, Lekman takes a gentle swipe at how other musicians—Lou Reed and Cliff Richards—held misconceptions about his native Sweden. Lekman’s music is bittersweet and melodic but always playful and fun—even when he’s talking about despair, break-ups or emotional lows. If Lekman was just another pop musician channeling honeyed confections that only sound good, I don’t think I’d spend too much time on him. But it is his lyrics that set him apart. On The Cold Swedish Winter, which is about love and yearning, on his first album, he sings: When people think of Sweden/ I think they have the wrong idea/ like Cliff Richards who thought it was just/ porn and gonorrhea/ And Lou Reed said in the film “Blue in the face”/ that compared to New York City/ Sweden was a scary place. By the time you read this, Lekman (his first name, incidentally, is pronounced Yens) will have his third full-length out. It’s called I Know What Love Isn’t.
Both, Lekman and Matsson, are among Sweden’s growing export of talented musicians, most of whom write songs in English, and being at the beginning of their careers worth keeping track of. I don’t think they’ll disappoint.
Thelonious S. Monk, the jazz pianist and extraordinary improviser, died at 64 in 1982. Even if you aren’t a big jazz buff, listening to Monk can be a great aural experience. Besides a huge body of solo work and his albums as a bandleader, Monk collaborated with many greats including John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Art Blakey. In 1988, Clint Eastwood produced a documentary on Monk (Thelonius Monk: Straight, No Chaser). The film has rare archival footage from the 1960s and is a great primer for anyone wanting to know the man and his music. Now, you can watch that film online. Some trivia about the great pianist’s middle intitial: it stands for Sphere; Monk adopted it so that he didn’t seem square. Hip?