“Have you ever noticed / Dog people all hate cats?”, asks Matthew Sweet at the halfway mark of his most recent release, Living Things. It’s no surprise that this singer-songwriter has thrown his hat into this endless debate, given that he proudly proclaims to love cats, and absurdly blithers in the liner notes to his Japanese love letter, Kimi Ga Suki, “O.K. I’m cat crazy.” That album’s cover features Sweet as a cat in a box being lured out by the beauty of the Rising Sun, while the lead track of Living Things is a sweet pop paean to “The Big Cats of Shambala”. His claim of being crazy becomes more credible by the second.
While Sweet entrenches himself firmly on one side of the cat controversy, he surprisingly finds himself straddling the fence on an entirely different issue. Perceived primarily as a purveyor of pure pop, Sweet seems to be the sonic inheritor of the plush soundscapes and taut packaging of the Beatles. No recent artist seems further removed from the yang to the Fab Four’s yin, the raw and spontaneous Rolling Stones. And if you think there are dog people and cat people, there are more ferocious arguments between their pop music parallel, the Stones and the Beatles. Countless and consistent argumentation and bar-room bickering has done little to determine which member of the British Royalty reigns supreme. The only way to determine if the feline subtlety of John and Paul [and Mr. Martin] outweighs the canine aggression of Mick and Keith [and Mr. Jones] is to borrow Sweet’s advice from the subject of house pets: “You’re going to have to decide / Which one are you in your heart”.
From the memorable stirrings of the 1991 breakthrough Girlfriend, through the inimicable pleasure of 100% Fun and the stylized set of In Reverse, Sweet seems to have decided in his heart eternally in favor of the Beatles’ predilections and all they entail: chordal songs that eschew the blues, soaring melodies awash in a sea of harmony, layers of instrumentation and effects that maximize the magic of studio production. To mix a metaphor entirely, suffice it to say that the closest Sweet’s stuff has ever sounded to the viscerally present “Stray Cat Blues” is the tame and contained barking of “Hey Bulldog”. This tendency is perhaps nowhere better seen in Sweet’s work than in his side-project, the Thorns, whose self-titled album was a perfect testament to the power of structure, balance, and pop harmony.
Living Things and Kimi Ga Suki cast all that into question. The songs for the latter were all written in one week, and final cuts were produced in Sweet’s house in about as little time. Wanting the songs for this expression of gratitude to his Japanese fans “to have a unique and spontaneous feeling,” Sweet and his band of friends [basically his Girlfriend-era band, thanks to Richard Lloyd’s Television touring through town during Kimi‘s recording] skipped the entire demo process and just put the tracks on tape quickly. Leaving them there with minimal post-production, Sweet leaves his admirers—be they Japanese, American, or other—with a solid album of songs that, while enjoyable to the ear, nonetheless seem a little too “spontaneous”, perhaps “unique” in the sense of being the only of Matthew’s songs to sound so unfinished.
Of similar hurried creation is Living Things, an album intended, from the start, for Matthew Sweet fans whatever passport they might carry. The songs for this record were also written quickly, in what Sweet describes as a “spontaneous explosion” that occurred while working with the Thorns. Uncannily, Living Things was conceived during the course of three morning walks, during which, in Newtonian fashion, Sweet sat ‘neath an apple tree until inspiration landed upon his head. Once The Thorns was in the can, Sweet rang up drummer pal Ric Menck, and the two of them laid down the basic tracks. Soon, sideman Greg Liesz added a virtual arsenal of instrumentation to bring the songs added life, and in an over-the-top addition, idiosyncratic genius Van Dyke Parks then joined the fray, adding every nature of tone and timbre known to humankind. Throw in a little upright bass and some brilliant harmonica by Roger Handy, and you’ve got the [mostly] finished product that is Living Things.
Living Things is a far better record than Kimi Ga Suki; benefiting from the attention in the studio, its songs—which, save the exception of the exceptional “Big Cats of Shambala”, are not particularly stronger than those on Kimi—just sound better. Living Things‘s “Push the Feelings Down” is given a richness through its arcane instrumentation that would help bring brighter life to Kimi‘s “I Don’t Want to Know”. The same could be said of the burning “I Saw Red”, whose production helps the song simmer on Living Things. How much would the same attention abet the texture of the already-excellent “I Love You” on Kimi Ga Suki, which is the closest Sweet has ever sounded to the abandon of rock’s other side.
The greatest weakness of these two albums, compared to one another because of their simultaneous release in America, is that they’re two strong records not nearly as good as Sweet’s otherwise stellar material. “Dead Smile” is Kimi‘s brilliant album opener, “Warning” is a gem of a pop nugget, and “Through Your Eyes” is as beautiful a song as Sweet has ever written; none of them, unfortunately, sound anywhere nearly as good as “Holy War”, the only weak link on Girlfriend‘s brilliant chain. “In My Tree” boasts a beautiful melody, “Dandelion” a catchy vamp of a bass line, “Season Is Over” a wonderfully sincere guitar line supporting its vocals; but none of these tracks from Living Things seem quite as finished, especially from a lyrical perspective, as Sweet’s contemporaneous work on The Thorns. For the first time in a long time, Matthew Sweet’s music seems less than perfect.
Matthew Sweet has built that name on a reliable history of albums that combine excellent songs with an even better presentation. With his two recent releases, and his next promised album—which he claims will “be really rocking”—Sweet runs the risk of denting that hard-earned reputation ever so slightly. There is a clear dip in quality traceable from The Thorns through Living Things to Kimi Ga Suki: and while the last of those three might never have originally been intended for the light of day here in America, it now stands to be judged alongside Sweet’s other albums. For while it remains clear that as a songwriter Sweet hasn’t lost a step, this listener thinks he might be better served sticking with his feline instincts instead of rushing his craft towards the immediacy of the doghouse. Living Things defines not only his latest album, but all of Sweet’s work: what he has proven consistently is that the more time he puts into bringing those songs to life, the longer life they are likely to lead. Ultimately, that is the sadness of Kimi Ga Suki—like the love letter it was intended to be, it will be put away in a box and only brought out on a real rainy day. Similarly, Living Things might see more play as the ear enjoys more of its details, but its grooves will never be nearly as worn as those of “Nothing Lasts”. And Matthew Sweet’s songs all deserve a better fate than sitting on a shelf.
// Notes from the Road
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