o, has anyone noticed how many creative reinventions Matthew Sweet's been through so far? I mean, seriously, is there someone who keeps track of this stuff? Sure, he ain't Bowie or anything, but the guy's been pretty all-over-the-map.
Story so far: starts out as a sideman/session player type, mostly jangle pop stuff. Cuts a couple solo albums with a little more studio sheen, giving them that certain dated synthy vibe that permeates so much 80s pop. Come 1991, his pure-pop songcraft continues to grow in pretty much the same direction, but he suddenly stumbles across the volume knobs on his amps. Everything is recorded to the point of tape saturation, and he brings in a few old-school New York gunslingers to spray fuzzed-out guitar solos all over the dozen-or-so-part vocal harmonies. Result: Girlfriend. Instant genre classic, touchstone of 90s power-pop.
Having developed a killer formula, he milks it for a while, reaching the point at which a new Matthew Sweet album basically means a couple top-notch singles and a bunch of decent filler. Fine, happens to the best of 'em, at least the greatest hits discs are always solid. Then suddenly, like an aging strikeout pitcher whose once-dominant fastball has been losing its velocity for a couple seasons, he learns to throw a wicked curve, and a star is reborn.
1999's In Reverse is your basic established songwriter's "mature" album, the one where he simultaneously discovers Mellotrons and seventh chords, his Pet Sounds, if you will. It's also his best since Girlfriend. After that he hooks up with a couple other aging strummers to form the Thorns, a kind of AAA-format Traveling Wilburys. Finally, he does a 180 right back to the loud rock, only this time even louder and rock-er than any of his earlier stuff, and records an entire album of fierce new material which he self-releases in Japan only.
So that brings us to Living Things, Sweet's latest and...not greatest. For one thing, the songwriting's regressed a little. It's mostly in the same symphonic vein as In Reverse, although not quite as ambitious. There's also a few too many straightforward major/minor throwbacks to Sweet's mid-90s glory days. Not a bad thing on paper, but the songs just don't stick to your ears the way his best ones used to. There's nothing here as addictively hummable as "I've Been Waiting" or "Sick of Myself," and that's really the key to this breed of pop; if you're not so sick of singing it to yourself that you can't wait to hear it again, it didn't really work. Besides, where Sweet's simple, direct melodies once seemed so effortless, in light of his recent work they just sound like the product of a lack of effort.
That's not to say there aren't fine moments. "I Saw Red" continues to push Sweet's songcraft away from facile verse-chorus structures toward a more tension-based build/release model. "Dandelion" drops the reliance on chord progressions, instead centering around a single repeating bassline and freeing up the vocal melody. And for those with a yen for the classics, "You're Not Sorry"'s chorus stands with the best of Sweet's weepy ballads. But too many of the ideas seem incomplete, like sketches waiting to be fleshed out. Sweet's writing is far more effective when it comes off fully realized, particularly the more experimental side he introduced on In Reverse.
Similarly, where In Reverse's unconventional instrumentation seemed carefully crafted, on Living Things Sweet goes for a more spontaneous vibe. Instruments are played with an almost child-like sense of wide-eyed discovery, and the results are understandably hit-or-miss. The funky barrelhouse piano that stomps all over "Cats vs. Dogs" fits perfectly with the song's aggressively playful mood. But the Jamaican steel drum noodlings on "The Big Cats of Shambala" sound as though they're being played by someone in another room who's just discovered the instrument, and distract immensely from the song.
To be fair, it would have been pretty tough to predict back the late 90s that Sweet would produce the diverse body of work he has in the past few years, and his apparent desire to avoid repeating himself is admirable in itself. But while the results of his newfound try-anything-once ethos are never uninteresting, the final product isn't always a good song. And let's face it, one still listens to Matthew Sweet first and foremost for good songs. Living Things is by no means a failure, and will probably please his core fan base, but it can't help but suffer in comparison to his recent triumphs.
Reviewed by: Bjorn Randolph
Reviewed on: 2004-09-16