Kristian Matsson, better known by his moniker The Tallest Man on Earth, returns with his sixth album of original songs, Henry St. Over the past decade-plus, Matsson has made a name for himself with his unique vocal stylings and sparse production and instrumentation — digging deep into a signature, indie folk style. Matsson steps away from that model with this latest album, which was recorded with a full band and utilizes more modern production techniques. Unfortunately, this attempt at evolving his sound, or even just keeping with the times, proves detrimental to the project’s success.
The backing band on Henry St. certainly offers a way of experiencing Matsson’s music unlike anything else found in his discography, and there are moments of full-band instrumentation that feel “right,” where the synergy of talented musicians collaborating realizes a wholly new sound for Tallest Man. But more often than not, this expanded roster strips the songs of what has proved so idiosyncratic in Matsson’s past work, and leaves the record feeling like a poor rip-off of any number of quite boring bands. The artist’s songwriting is also lacking this time out. Haunting lyrics about his divorce, the overwhelming experience of aging, etc., worked wonderfully with the sparser production of earlier albums, lending a Dylanesque temperament to his work. There are moments of lyrical escape, asking for peace in an uncertain sea that foils his previous self-deprecating words. But here, Matsson trades in rote lyrics that feel disconnected from both his previous efforts and the fuller sound that they are here merely plastered upon. Even the artist’s vocal on Henry St. feels wrong, opting for a softer vocal tone than his throaty yowl of the past. Missing is the familiar abrasion that easily keeps listeners hanging on his words, and instead, Matsson slips into a tone that feels overly polished and stock. The result is a modernized, post-Lord Huron version of folk that falls flat on ears almost the moment it starts. It’s all the more frustrating when fleeting moments evince the kind of distinctly beautiful melodies that have proven a hallmark of The Tallest Man on Earth’s previous records, but they are simply too difficult to locate amidst Henry St.’s undeniable bloat and fatigue (which is surprising given the respectable 40-minute runtime).
Recently, there’s been a trend amongst popular bands from the 2010s to fully reinvent themselves and develop a new sound. Vampire Weekend adopted the aural aesthetic of the ‘70s jam band scene for their 2019 release Father of the Bride. Bon Iver fully embraced a more glitched-out electronic sound through which to filter his own brand of folk on 2016’s 22, A Million. With Henry St., The Tallest Man on Earth gives mild reinvention a whirl, but it, unfortunately, results in a record that takes on many of the worst qualities of the modern campus folk scene, tapping into the lyrical cringe of artists like Noah Kahan and the twee, rote instrumentation of Edward Sharpe. There are still littered moments that remind of Matsson at his peak, and there’s little doubt his career will feature further experimentation to come, but Henry St. feels like a worst-of-both-worlds project and a huge step back for the artist.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 18.