It was tempting to presume yesterday’s EP-after-the-LP from The Tallest Man on Earth was simply a carrier for “Like the Wheel.” But if pithy, Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird is equally as powerful and nuanced as both of Kristian Matsson’s tremendous full-lengths.
Following May’s The Wild Hunt, Passing Bird opens with archetypal Tallest Man ballad “Little River,” marked by intricate finger-picking and the now-signature vocal acrobatics of a man without much of a voice to tumble with. “Tangle in This Trampled Wheat” likewise begins with a complex guitar line and the most pronounced undercurrent of woe on the EP. It is hard to overstate Mattson’s mastery of the instrument, though it always supports rather than overwhelms the arrangemet.
Like, but also unlike, Highway 61 Revisited, TMOE marks this release with his first recorded use of electric guitar. It is heady stuff. “The Dreamer” is a considered, not grandstanding, escalation of Matsson’s sound, hearbroken but not effusive.
“Like the Wheel,” the iTunes bonus track for The Wild Hunt, is at the sequential and creative center of Passing Bird. The song became a favorite encore for the Tallest Man on Earth, as memorably performed last May in absolute silence at Salt Lake City’s Kilby Court. The lyrics, if born in Sweden, evoke American dystopia better than Paul Simon:
And on this Sunday someone’s sitting down to wonder
Where the hell among these mountains will I be?
There’s a cloud behind the cloud to which I’m yelling
I could hear you sneak around so easily
And I said oh my Lord why am I not strong
Like the branch that keeps hangman hanging on
Like the branch that will take me home
I am fully convinced that songs such as “Like the Wheel” are so perfectly conceived and rendered that they spring from some Jungian race memory. The Tallest Man on Earth has not so much written Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird as he has memorialized a portion of the human condition passed to him through some indefinable chromosomal essence that now marks a high-water mark of the American folk tradition.
Listen to “Like the Wheel” at the Consequence of Sound.