The Wild Hunt Turns 10: How The Tallest Man On Earth Changed Indie-Folk For The Better

Kristian Matsson recently livestreamed the album in full, and nearly 10,000 tuned in. What makes these songs so special?

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The Wild Hunt Turns 10: How The Tallest Man On Earth Changed Indie-Folk For The Better

Last week, Kristian Matsson, the Swedish folk singer/songwriter who records as The Tallest Man On Earth and has been frequently noted as Bob Dylan’s eerily similar successor, did what many artists are doing these days: He live-streamed a concert from home. For Matsson, though, this livestream wasn’t just a stab at curing mid-quarantine boredom—it was a celebration of one of his defining albums.

Matsson performed The Wild Hunt, his sophomore LP released on April 13, 2010, from start to finish on Friday. The YouTube session (placed above) now has more than 65,000 views, and viewership during the actual stream reached 8,000 at one point—including viewers from all over the world, leaving comments in more languages than I could count. Matsson has a broad fanbase, but The Wild Hunt in particular has steadily acquired new fans and has aged especially gracefully over the last decade.

Following his debut album Shallow Grave in 2008, Matsson was invited to tour with indie-folk lord Bon Iver, giving him a larger platform on which to debut The Wild Hunt. With the rise of artists like the aforementioned Justin Vernon, Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes and even Mumford & Sons, indie folk was becoming a more popular, full-fledged genre. By spring of 2011, Mumford & Sons had two songs on the Billboard Hot 100; that same year, Bon Iver’s self-titled album peaked at number two on the albums chart. Matsson would never see that kind of mainstream attention, but The Tallest Man On Earth tapped into folk’s roots in a way the others didn’t.

Stylistically, The Wild Hunt isn’t all that different from the mystical, lean and perhaps even more lyrically forthright Shallow Grave. The Wild Hunt is only four minutes longer than Shallow Grave’s half-hour runtime, and like its predecessor, it only features a handful of instruments—never drums—and little to no production effects. Where Bon Iver may flirt with the occasional droning feedback and Marcus Mumford a thundering electric guitar solo, Matsson was strictly acoustic and, usually, strictly analog. While he has a knack for layered wordplay in the vein of Dylan, rusticity was—and remains—his greatest strength.

After that Bon Iver tour and eventually signing to indie stalwart Dead Oceans, The Tallest Man On Earth’s growing fanbase was eager for more of his sharp, no-frills sound, and The Wild Hunt more than delivered. Further perfecting his tilted, Dylan-esque vocal delivery, Matsson (who, miraculously, learned English as his second language) spends the bulk of The Wild Hunt spitting out sturdy metaphors and basking in a pastoral wonderland. The album’s high points—including the back-to-back pair “King of Spain” and “Love is All,” easily two of his most popular singles to date—are the closest things you’ll ever hear to pop songs in The Tallest Man On Earth’s catalogue. The former expresses desire to pack up and start life over at a lover’s side on Spanish shores, while the latter is a kind of all-encompassing epic poem about the beauties and dangers of love. That may sound like a grandiose description, but Matsson has a way of making even the shortest folk song into something almost biblical. “Like a house made from spider webs and the clouds rolling in / I bet this mighty river’s both my savior and my sin,” he sings on the spritely “Love is All.” Album closer “Kids on the Run” is the rare piano song in The Tallest Man on Earth’s catalogue, and it makes for a pleasantly peaceful goodbye.

Matsson makes the acoustic guitar sound like an orchestra on “You’re Going Back” and the banjo like a full-throttled band on “Troubles Will Be Gone,” a song about goodwill written in the verbal style of Robert Frost. The entire album is full of these tiny orchestras and miniature choirs—a sound few of Matsson’s contemporaries were able to recreate. But many folk artists who’ve arrived in years after The Wild Hunt have seemingly been taking notes. The like-minded Joan Shelley treats her acoustic guitar with a similar reverence, instrumental artist and former Silver Jews musician William Tyler probably learned a thing or two about pacing and rhythm from Matsson and Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor carries on the legacy of curving his sultry, lilting vocals into a style resembling Dylan, as do Kevin Morby and Waxahatchee, who share that same distinct vocal formula. The Wild Hunt gave proceeding indie-folk artists something to aspire to in terms of both authenticity and craft.

By 2010, indie-folk (and indie music at large) was fully woven into the growing “hipster” base and quickly solidifying itself as a new form of popular music. But few albums from this era capture the spark of all-time folk greats like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez and also repurpose and re-shape that flame for a modern listenership. Kristian Matsson injected light and love into a form of music-making that was half-a-century old at this point, and he made it into something new, singular and sustainable. The Wild Hunt remains an aspirational album in that regard—few roots artists have managed to finesse such an act since.

Ellen Johnson is an associate music editor, writer, playlist maker, coffee drinker and pop culture enthusiast at Paste. She occasionally moonlights as a film fan on Letterboxd. You can find her yapping about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson.

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