As far as modern folk singers go, it’s pretty trendy to sound like Bob Dylan. You can feel and hear the legendary folk singer and Nobel Prize-winning songwriter’s influence across most indie folk work of the last 50 years—as well as rock and American songwriting at large. But a few people really tap into his style more so than others. Taylor Goldsmith, lead singer of the California rock band Dawes and a member of The New Basement Tapes (the collective of musicians who together recorded covers of the lost Dylan manuscripts of the same name in 2014) possesses a bit of that Dylan-like rasp. Jim James—also a Basement Tapes participator—too shares that characteristically dry, distanced wheeze in his work with My Morning Jacket. In 2020, we hear artists like Waxahatchee and Kevin Morby, who both very obviously channel Dylan in their vocal work. But there’s one artist in particular who has been drawing Dylan comparisons since his first recordings debuted.
Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man On Earth, is a Dylan successor if there ever was one. In fact, some music writers and fans may even feel his voice is a little too reminiscent of Dylan’s. His tendency to write music that’s more raw and stripped-down paired with his strained, gruff vocals make the comparison almost too obvious. But, then again, Matsson’s music is still something singular. Across five LPs and three EPs, the Swedish singer/songwriter and fingerpicker extraordinaire has charmed his way through folk circles and indie rock strongholds alike, positioning himself as one of the finest roots musicians working. Last year, he veered away from the strictly rustic style of his first four LPs in exchange for a more elaborate setup on I Love You. It’s A Fever Dream.: horn sections, electronic blips, atmospheric effects. But at the core of all his music is Matsson’s introspective songwriting sensibilities and his banjo (or guitar, depending on the song). In honor of one of the best artists in the world of indie folk, we gathered 10 of our favorite songs from his catalogue. See the full list below.
While 2015’s Dark Bird Is Home is by and large a bit of a dark spot on Matsson’s otherwise untarnished discography, there are a few moments of reprieve within it. One of those is “Sagres,” a jangly folk-pop number that pays respect to Cape Sagres, a headland in the southwest of Portugal that’s nicknamed the “end of the road.” In the song, however, Matsson toils in the end of a relationship and starts to question everything, lamenting “It’s just all this fucking doubt,” at one exasperated point in the song. —Ellen Johnson
Matsson leans fully into his folklorist side on this cut from his self-titled debut EP. Mentioning mountains, valleys and lightning strikes, this song was just the tip of iceberg when it comes to The Tallest Man On Earth’s obsession with the natural world. Some of his best work references our Mother Earth, and this song in particular contains a hopeful, pastoral energy as Matsson compares life to the fleeting nature of a rainstorm. —Ellen Johnson
His 2010 EP Sometimes The Blues Is Just A Passing Bird contains some of Matsson’s best work, not least among it being “Little River.” If it weren’t for a rolling, quickened under-beat and a rather morose conclusion (“You just sing about your own death in your closet / You stumble out into the pitch-black hallway,” he sings at one point), it’d make the perfect lullaby. —Ellen Johnson
“1904” is undoubtedly one of the jammier songs across Matsson’s eight projects, benefitting greatly from an electric guitar groove. Apparently the song references a devastating earthquake that rocked Sweden and Norway in the titular year, but you needn’t have any knowledge of natural disasters to make sense of this pleasant folk-rock tune. —Ellen Johnson
In all honesty, there isn’t much dispute among fans about which of the Tallest Man On Earth’s albums are best: 2008’s Shallow Grave and the proceeding The Wild Hunt (2010) are almost always going to come out on top. The title track from the former contains all the elements that make this pair of albums so interesting and listenable: a relentless banjo lick, existential ramblings and Matsson’s inimitable scratchy-throated cry. The narrator here is down-on-his-luck, and Matsson finds the most lyrically beautiful ways to convey this unrest: “I found the darkness in my neighbor / I found the fire in the frost / I found the season once claimed healthy / Oh, I need the guidance of the lost.” —Ellen Johnson
The human condition is one of constant searching and exhaustion. We have no assurance that things will be “OK,” as friends and family so often try to convince us. But, at the same time, their dedication to helping us believe everything will turn out alright is in itself proof that no matter what happens, life goes on, because we have loved ones around to see us through it. Matsson infuses a near-perfect banjo melody with this promise on “Troubles Will Be Gone”: “Well the day is never done / But there’s a light on where you’re sleeping / So I hope somewhere that troubles will be gone.” —Ellen Johnson
This is, technically speaking, a lovely display of Matsson’s talents. The cascade of banjo is enough to convince anyone to be on his side. But the lyrics, too, help you root for Matsson, as he projects plans for the future before realizing that, if he’s not focusing on the present, he might as well be asleep. “Well if I ever get that slumber / I’ll be that mole deep in the ground,” he sings. “And I won’t be found.” —Ellen Johnson
Who among us hasn’t fretted over what tomorrow will bring? Here, Matsson promises a partner he’ll be one less thing to worry about, while also acknowledging that while we can think about the future all we want, we truly have no clue what it will bring. We just have to meet it when it comes: “Oh but hell I’m just a blind man on the plains,” he sings over pristine guitar. “I drink my water when it rains / And live by chance among the lightning strikes.”—Ellen Johnson
“Love Is All” is The Tallest Man On Earth’s “hit”—and for good reason. It’s the perfect entry point into his catalogue and a damn good folk song in its own right. He recounts the dreadful end of a relationship, and, from the point of the listener, it sounds like he’s brusied beyond repair (“Love is all, from what I’ve heard, but my heart’s learned to kill”). But instead of dwelling on the lost “future” of this couplehood, he releases his regret: “Here come the tears / But like always, I let them go / Just let them go.” —Ellen Johnson
The Tallest Man on Earth’s “The Gardener” is a metaphorical story of hiding one’s ugliness to better be the apple of a lover’s eye. The verses are patterned a certain way, each a distinct scene recounting a figurative body buried, with the sort of subtle variations that keep you grasping always for the next lyric, imagining the garden you have made. —Scott Russell