October 19, 2004


Matthew Sweet -- Living Things.jpg

Emptying his mixed big of aural experiments

Deep down, Matthew Sweet has always been a softie.

This has been evident right from his 1991 breakthrough, Girlfriend. The discís title track, with its scorching guitar, quickly became his signature song, but alongside it was plenty of pristine, lighter material that was more in the vein of Brian Wilson or the Carpenters than anything on alternative radio at the time. Sweet perfected this blueprint on his albums throughout the '90s, even if his legacy seems destined to remain a couple of enduring melodic-rock favorites from the first half of that decade.

It should come as little surprise, then, that on his ninth proper studio album, Living Things (Superdeformed/RCAM), Sweet has not only made a record devoted to more dulcet sounds, but even enlisted noted Wilson collaborator and producer Van Dyke Parks to play on it.

Sweet wrote the material while working out songs with his acoustic trio project, The Thorns, on a ranch in mountainous Santa Ynez, Calif., and it shows in two obvious ways. There are no electric guitars on the album, and curiously, about half the songs seem better suited for a National Geographic soundtrack: odes to dandelions, changing seasons and wild cats.

The result is a collection of songs that showcases the most radiant and daring instrumentation of Sweet's career, even more so than 1999's In Reverse, his more accessible nod to Phil Spector's "wall of sound." Living Things sputters at a few ill-fitting, self-indulgent moments, but Sweet and his versatile musicians -- employing variations of percussion, mandolins, keys -- get it right on "You're Not Sorry," a glistening ballad that finds the singer at his longing, wounded-heart best; "Push The Feelings," a sunny number featuring some sly slide guitar (by Greg Leisz) and a driving organ melody, courtesy of Parks; and "In My Time," one of a handful of tracks featuring delicately layered vocals.

On the other hand, there are missteps, such as the meandering first track, "The Big Cats of Shambala," which does earn points for opening with xylophone-sounding steel drums, and the peppy but downright corny "Cats vs. Dogs," which poses the burning question: "It's cats versus dogs/Who are you going to side with?" Songs like these make it clear that Sweet's sensitive songwriter persona has taken a back seat to emptying his mixed bag of aural experiments.

Overall, Sweet's ambition on Living Things is a good thing, and if nothing else, give him credit for accomplishing what many of his contemporaries have not: breaking new ground for himself, nearly two decades into his recording career. In many ways, Living Things is the colorful, quirky, achievement of high art that Sweet has always had in him. And along the way, he has seemingly gotten in touch with his inner Brian Wilson. As for the source of some of his lyrical inspiration, God only knows.

-- By George Henn

Posted by medleyville at October 19, 2004 08:25 PM