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Like many of you will experience in the coming years, my first roommate in college challenged my musical preconceptions and grew my palette. Again, like many of you, I was under the misguided presumption that hip-hop was unequivocally the coolest form of popular music and that Ludacris building rhyming imagery about a night’s stay at the Holiday Inn (referred to in the song as the “Holidae Inn”) in which he didn’t sleep was the apex of musical genius.
Then, however, I signed a lease with 3 friends at 218 West Ave. in LaCrosse, WI for the 2009-10 school year. Not only would I learn how to run a dishwasher effectively for the first time, but I would be living with the particular type of civilized human who had a map of the world hung on his bedroom wall and casually used colloquialisms like “as the crow flies” to describe the shortest route to jaunt across campus. Naturally, he listened to a lot of indie music.
Aside from awakening my understanding to many things (hummus notwithstanding), this friend enlightened my ears to the indie folk/rock genre of music. I still believe that in twenty years the pervasive genre of the millennial generation will be hip-hop (think: Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, and others) and EDM will turn into a what-were-we-thinking punchline, akin to the way disco and the haircuts of Flock of Seagulls are remembered; but I believe indie rock will be a close second. The lasting impact of nuanced, original voices like that of Matt Berninger (The National), Colin Meloy (The Decemberists) and James Mercer (The Shins) might have a greater resonance in ten years than they do today. Sometimes that’s just how music as an art form works. You’re never appreciated fully when its most convenient for you–that’s what’s inherently indie about it.
But in the case of The Tallest Man on Earth, otherwise known as Swedish singer/songwriter Kristian Matsson, the reverberance of his music lies in our collective recollection of his voice. Although popular in some small indie circles (to which the same could be said about shampoo), Matsson has forged a reputation as a delicately thoughtful songwriter with a maverick leading voice oft compared to the transcendent Bob Dylan for its octaval range and unconventional sound. What compels me most about Matsson, though, and what has kept the music of the Tallest Man on Earth strumming along in my mind since it was first introduced to me in 2009 is how his songwriting variety defines the genre of indie rock and further expounds the art form of 21st century songwriting.
Throughout his discography, which includes the studio albums Shallow Grave, The Wild Hunt, There’s No Leaving Now, and Dark Bird is Home, Matsson channels the coalesced nature of poetic style and individualist expression that has come to personify the indie genre as a whole.
So, in turn, I walk you through some of the requisite, staple tunes of the consummate indie maestro.
The Thoughtful, Introspective Ballad
“Sometimes the blues is just a passing bird, And why can’t that always be” –“The Dreamer”
Whenever your songwriting structure and content is mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan, a few things come to mind. 1) You must use strange symbolic fodder for songwriting material, 2) The use of weather and the environment must be readily at play in the lyrics, and 3) There are undoubtedly some lines that simply make no sense at all. In Matsson’s introspective melody, “The Dreamer” all three of the aforementioned attributes are at play. In this song alone, Matsson references birches, birds, shadows, light, acres, and meadows, often in unique syntactical blends (i.e. “Tossing aside from your birches crown, Just enough dark to see”). Still, however, much like Dylan, the central area of discussion in the song as a whole is a woman, although she is personified in a myriad of environmental figures, ultimately rendering her “the light over me.” “The Dreamer”‘s cadence allows for you to feel the introspection in Matsson’s songwriting while his vocal inflection mixed with the distorted guitar culminate into a sense of longing and nostalgia.
“I sense a spy up in the chimney, From all the evidence I’ve burned, I guess he’ll read it in the smoke now, And soon to ashes I’ll return” –“The Gardner”
Like any literary artist, Matsson employs the literary device willingly. In one of the more popular hits from his most critically acclaimed album, The Wild Hunt, “The Gardner” showcases a young man at odds with himself and his decision making in a metaphorical garden, symbolizing both the death and re-birth of his self. Similarly, in The Tallest Man on Earth’s most recent single “Rivers,” he uses rivers to metaphorically characterize the ambiguity surrounding his own decisions (i.e. “Oh, I guess it’s true, I guess these rivers never knew.”) The artful and creative use of allegory in both instances alludes to a deeper, more poignant message to be relayed in the sub-text as we interpret the music individually based on our own orientation with the lyrics.
The Someone-Else-Somewhere-Else Kick-starter
“Well if you could reinvent my name, Well if you could redirect my day, I wanna be the King of Spain.”–“King of Spain”
As much as Matsson’s creative representations at times seem all too realistic, his conjured, fanciful imagery in his most upbeat track, “King of Spain,” demonstrate his longing for refuge and respite in a life other than his own. In true European nomadic fashion, Matsson references provoking bulls in Pamplona, as well as sojourns to Barcelona, Madrid, and the disappearance with a flamenco dancer in this imaginative mood-shifter. In fact, Matsson’s direct reference to having “stole some eagle’s wings” places this indie track in the pigeonhole of an otherworld dreamscape often employed by new-retro artists.
The Indie-Emo Love Ballad
“Love is all, from what I’ve heard, but my heart’s learned to kill” –“Love is All”
Indie love is weird. When you add a poet’s language to an already-confused milieu of emotions, strange thoughts are bound to arise. Indie love, though, is not like the love of Richard Marx, The Goo Goo Dolls, or even Adele. At the risk of sounding cliche, death (metaphorically speaking) is a central antithesis feeling associated with love and therefore finds its way into many indie love songs. The Tallest Man on Earth’s “Love is All” is no exception. The song’s crescendo comes in the chorus following Matsson’s line, “here come the tears, but like always, I let them go.” From there, an onomatopoeia of sorts is relayed in the following lines as his voice seemingly follows the rhythm of his tears. I told you, indie love is weird. That said, indie love is art. Often art seems weird until we look at it from a different angle.
“And now something with the dirt is just different, Since they shook the earth in 1904.” –“1904”
Every artist has one. You hear the song and can’t make any sense of the direction or sentiment infused in the lyrics. In subsequence, you look up the lyrics to see if you’ve misheard them, read them in full, and find yourself even further down a rabbit hole of confusion. It seems intentional–and it very well may be. Take a look at this excerpt from the opening verse: “But the lesson is vague and the lightning, Shows a deer with her mind on the moor, And now something with the sun is just different, Since they shook the earth in 1904.” What event is he referencing from the turn of the 20th century? How does the deer come into play? Without looking it up, what is a moor? Who knows? It would be easy for me to blame drugs here, but I’ll just blame art.
The Nostalgic Hometown Hymn
“It’s all silvery, dear, it’s the light of little nowhere towns” –“Little Nowhere Towns”
Alas, this is my favorite staple of the indie genre. We all at some time or another have the misguided perception that our hometown is smaller than it actually is. Yes, this includes Lake Forest. You’ll arrive at this notion more conclusively once you meet several people from oft forgotten states with hometowns like Independence, OH, or Alliance, GA. Still, there is a quaint romanticism that we associate with our hometown that hits poignantly once we move away. For many of you, that might be next year. Still, a song that reminds you of home–of family, friends, or even your high school–is worth something. If you don’t believe me now, play this song in four years. I know no one will actually do that, but that doesn’t make me wrong.