Songwriting, for people like Kristian Matsson, is the stuff of daydreams. And daydreams, of course, tend to spring from solitude, a state his music has naturally existed in since his earliest releases as the Tallest Man on Earth. But different kinds of isolation breed different daydreams, and movement is often necessary to spark the imagination. In a time of enforced solitude, Matsson struggled to come up with songs that were guided by his own instinct and didn’t indulge in darkness. He turned to his favorite tunes, covering them on YouTube livestreams during lockdown and releasing a covers compilation, Too Late for Edelweiss, late last year. It wasn’t until he was able to tour again towards the end of 2021 that that old inspiration struck again, that old bittersweetness. Except there was something new about it: he didn’t want to create alone. “I write a song and then I daydream about playing it for people somewhere,” he said in a recent interview. On Henry St., his seventh album, it sounds like that playful, collective energy manifested earlier in the process. Maybe some of the bitter parts of it had even worn off.
Matsson enlisted Sylvan Esso’s Nick Sanborn to produce the record, which features contributions from Ryan Gustafson on guitar, lap steel and ukulele, TJ Maiani on drums, Bon Iver’s CJ Camerieri and Rob Moose on trumpet, French horn and strings, Phil Cook on keys, and Adam Schatz on saxophone. The Tallest Man on Earth songs have always flitted between the familiar and the unknowable, but the supporting cast here – more prominent than in records like 2015’s Dark Bird Is Home, an album fixated on heartbreak – and Matsson’s newfound confidence make that space feel more tangible, less out of reach. When he sings “I dance with the wrecking ball/ On this lonesome side of times” on opener ‘Bless You’, Gustafson’s electric guitar flourishes and Maiani’s nimble drumming paint the picture a little outside his mind. The fact that ‘Slowly Rivers Turn’ concludes with a sweeping saxophone solo might seem surprising, but it makes sense in a song about relinquishing control. “Could I ever just lose myself?” Matsson asks on ‘New Religion’. Throughout Henry St., he gives it his best shot.
Foregoing his past work’s DIY approach, Matsson finds ways to relax some of the burdens of insecurity in his voice, its rough edges hewed into a kind of “weariness grown tender.” There’s optimism and hunger in it even when the mood is introspective and sullen, and it frees him from the tangle of metaphors that have inhibited his writing in the past. On ‘Bless You’, small observations invite grand claims: “Life is a little bird in the wind at night,” he sings, losing no wonder as it gets drunken and messy. “Someday I’ll remember how to disappear,” he declares on ‘Looking for Love’, which lands closer to Porter Robinson than anything Bob Dylan ever penned. But the longing for that someday doesn’t feel naïve or impossible, especially in the presence of other musicians and friends. “Can we just sing our song/ Until we sing it right/ You’ll be the rolling cloud/ I’ll be the endless sky,” he offers on ‘Major League’, the hurried rhythm of the banjo matching his anticipation. And then, as Sanborn’s cavernous electronics rise up, he gives himself over to something that once felt innately personal and lonely: “the reckless of your dream.”
Matsson’s voice has always had an effortlessness to it, but it’s never been used to make music quite so outwardly joyful. Yet there’s still conflict and sorrow at the very heart of Henry St.. None of the goodbyes delivered in the album’s second half are easy. Its centerpiece and title track is so earnest and devastating it reminds of me the piano ballad from gang of youths’ last record, and that’s saying something. The singer perceives what hangs over him as a totality of feeling – as if feeling wrong and small is all there is. Maybe it is in the moment, but Henry St. is most refreshing when it moves through it, when Matsson is capable of redirecting his vision, this familiar and deep-seated longing, into something even bigger. “I’m going to see the world through every heart I know,” he sings, which sounds like a new kind of promise.