When Kristian Matmos, the eponymous Tallest Man on Earth, first appeared back in 2008 with his debut Shallow Grave – man o man, was I blown away. Shallow Grave rattles out of the gates like a twenty-first century Woody Guthrie – a Woody Guthrie fired by Dylan and Presley and the Rolling Stones and all of that good stuff. The sound was pared back, one man and a guitar, but, to paraphrase Dr Seuss, oh the places it took me.
I first saw Matmos live around then too, in a church in Salford and, again, the man blew the bloody doors off. People were standing in pews going fucking batshit crazy. It was like seeing Jeff Buckley for the first time. Since then, the guitar has been supplemented. He’s followed a journey not unlike Sam Beam, whose early Iron & Wine material is stripped back only to be supplemented as he’s gone on. but where Sam Beam has gone richly World with his full band material, Matmos has become – more like The National.
Well, that sounds ok, you might say. The National are pretty damn great, and there’s enough distance between Matt Berninger’s vocal style and Matmos’ for there to be room for each to play. Agreed. Certainly, where Berninger broadly espouses a resigned acceptance that, ok, everything went to shit but at least there’s this moment – the one we’ve managed to rescue for ourselves – just here – and we know it won’t last but don’t think about that – just enjoy it – Matmos currently operates within a fresh, bruised, not quite fully cognisant, slightly wobbly feeling of has it just gone to shit? – can we rescue it? – will we get back what we’ve lost? – this isn’t the end is it?
That feeling informs his latest record, I Love You, It’s a Fever Dream. For those in the know, his last record, Dark Bird is Home, is now being regarded as his divorce record (he was married, briefly, to Amanda Bergman, AKA Idiot Wind – well worth checking out if you get a moment) – and I Love You, It’s a Fever Dream is the long shadow cast.
This is not an upbeat, hey, we’re on the road to recovery record. This is Tallest Man on Earth, wallowing, beautifully, alongside verdant instrumentation. Things kick off with ‘Hotel Bar’ – gentle Simon & Garfunkel-esque finger picked guitar, Nebraska-period Springsteen harmonica, and Matmos whispering, almost, about the ‘breeze that keeps us apart’. “All I can do is say – things will be fine,” he sings. It’s hopeful. “Some days we will be in the same town.” But you don’t believe it. The dark bird has flown. ‘The Running Styles of New York’ follows – a piano that sounds like an apology, strings that feel like shrugs, guitar rolling like storm clouds. “And all that I fear is that all that I have given you Is a ship out to nowhere that wants to be out of control.” It’s super pretty, no doubt but, as Matmos sings, “It’s all been too much,” you start to feel a bit bummed.
There are then three further songs – “There’s a Girl”, “My Dear” and “What I’ve Been Kicking Around” – that continue to plough this particular furrow. They are gentle Tallest Man songs. “I’m way too stubborn to believe we won’t make it,” he sings and we think: we get it Kristian. We’ve been there, man. We feel you. But, you know: buck up a bit, too.
As a listener you start to feel like he builds his vocal line first and then extemporises with the instrumentation. By which we mean to say that the songs don’t feel like songs you’re likely to whistle after you’ve heard them as much as they feel like postcard explorations of where his mind is at (and we started to be reminded of Mark Kozelek, of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon, who we have loved in the past, but who currently finds himself in a terrible impasse, releasing too many records that seek to explore the grain of the lint in his navel). In other words, by the mid point, I Love You, It’s a Fever Dream starts to feel a bit samey.
Ah, and then we have ‘I’m a Stranger Now’. Thank goodness for ‘I’m a Stranger Now’. It is still firmly a song about love ending. Make no mistake. If you’re feeling depressed by the record and you listen to the lyrics, it’s no right turn. ‘I’m a Stranger Now’ is not Tallest Man on Earth goes all Katrina and the Waves. But it is a song, it has pace, it takes you somewhere and it races. This is what the record needs more of, you think. The closest cousin is ‘Wind and Walls’, the standout track from 2012’s There’s No Leaving Now, or ‘Sangres’ from the aforementioned Dark Bird. ‘I’m a Stranger Now’ is the best song on ILYIAFD (as no one is calling it).
Then we have four further songs – ‘Waiting for My Ghost’, ‘I’ll be a Sky’, ‘All I Can Keep is Now’ and the eponymous title track. Here are a few sample lyrics: “I’m a captain so mad at sea / And this old room is now my ship somehow / In here waves crashing over me”; “I travel the fever road / I travel clouds of my mistakes / And sure, I can drift away / But I’ll be just around the corner from your love”; “Your buildings are like shadows / And your eyes are deep / Here, all I can keep is now”; “But I keep the hope I carry / Little things so I can love / Wherever I go now”. It’s all pleasant enough. But you can’t escape a sense of diminishing returns. Like he’s found his schtick – pretty acoustic laments that rarely escape first gear, that rarely build, that kind of unravel and then end – and he’s ploughing that furrow as far as it will go.
So what do we want from Tallest Man on Earth? We want him to go back and listen to Shallow Grave. We want him to rediscover the fire that he had on that record. Pretty isn’t enough. (He needs to find his Apollo Creed and get that eye of the tiger back.) What’s more, he needs to get over what he needs to get over. Without being too callous about it, you’ve had heartbreak, we’re sorry, we’ve all been there, but two records about it is too much. Consider this the cruel to be kind advice that only a good friend would provide. Hell, go listen to Katrina and the Waves sing ‘Walking on Sunshine’ and let that be the template for your next record. Think sunshine. Think: the world is fucking crazy right now, we don’t need anyone to bring us any further down. We want to be lifted. So lift us. Because you can.
Words by Pete Wild.