I probably shouldn't do this," murmured the Helio Sequence's Brandon Summers before strumming a Bob Dylan tune at a songwriters' showcase some months ago. Against his better judgment, perhaps, Summers went ahead. The results were surprising and impressive. What Summers understood is that channeling Dylan's essence is a slippery slope—one left mostly to the yahoo-derelict-panhandlers on Venice Beach boardwalks, because doing Dylan properly is elusive, if not downright difficult. It's just that those burnouts, and the tourists who watch them, simply don't know any better.
Unabashedly mimicking Dylan's style within one's own work, meanwhile, is like asking to be kicked in the nuts. Then laughed at. Yet solo Swedish folksinger Kristian Matsson, under the moniker the Tallest Man on Earth has managed to make the theft strangely compelling. (After all, Dylan himself was a great thief).
Shallow Grave, Matsson's first full-length released earlier this year on Gravitation Records, draws heavily from Dylan's early solo work. Matsson pushes his reedy vocals through the back of his throat, and cops the trademark nasal near-whine, coloring the vowels bright and bold.
Perhaps Matsson is able to tramp down these similar roads with relative freedom because he isn't American. Indeed, the American experience is central to Dylan's best work, and there is a good chance no one will ever top his insight, timing, and commentary. Luckily, the bony European doesn't have to try.
And while Matsson employs the same styles—twisting phrases, rhythms, and melody with dense, picturesque imagery that, at times, defies any clear interpretation—his subjects are more introspective and murky, perhaps more fitting for this passive- aggressive generation. In the stirring, brilliant, and catchy "The Gardner," Matsson confesses a vicious defense of perceived inadequacies. Those who would dare share the lies he has told, or that "there ain't no cowboy in my hair," end up "beneath the lilies." He then sings: "So now we're dancing in the garden/and what a garden I have made/and now the death will grow my jasmine/I find it soothing, I'm afraid."
Perhaps the song idea—or the whole Dylan worship—sounds ridiculous, but I assure you it is not. Matsson is earnest and ripe with talent, and you probably haven't heard the last from him. And if at times it feels like you're listening to some recently uncovered tracks from the vaults of young Dylan, well, there ain't nothing wrong with that.
For more information on the Tallest Man on Earth, visit thetallestmanonearth.com.