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The Trouble With Sweeney

I Know You Destroy

(Burnt Toast Vinyl; US: 22 Apr 2003; UK: Available as import)

Adorned with a lavish booklet full of faux-elegant black and white photographs, The Trouble with Sweeney‘s I Know You Destroy is mostly well-arranged, piano-driven soft rock that is the aural equivalent of the pictures, achieving a superficial tastefulness by trading on the overtones of their medium. The songs’ tempos are often jaunty, bouncy, as the pianist tends to stabs at chords rather than allowing any of them to sustain. The production touchstone appears to have been Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot: the songs have the same spaciousness, the same organ backdrops providing sonic texture, the same tendency to unravel at the beginning and the end. The inventive arrangements surprise without startling; they are distinctive without being showy. But unlike Wilco, who convincingly convey a concern for adult themes to match their adult contemporary sound, songwriter Joey Sweeney seems entirely preoccupied with his own love life, which is rife with that peculiar nostalgia for a teenaged innocence that never really exists, romanticizing things like hanging out “by the language lab” or “drinking in the graveyard”. And it seems stubbornly juvenile to continue to lament lost innocence, a view which buys into the notion that adulthood is merely a time of stifled drudgery compared to the wondrous discoveries of childhood. That any other discovery about adult life (except that it is not as “innocent” as youth) might be made is rarely hinted at it on this album, which prefers to explore “Buster Browns” and “breaking up”.


That Sweeney chooses to release his albums under the moniker of the Trouble with Sweeney, as though it weren’t enough that he makes the music, but it must also be about him, gives a sense of the overall problem with this record, which has a smug, narcissistic feel that is never more oppressive than when Sweeney feints at self-deprecation. The band name invites the assumption that all the songs are autobiographical, which leads to a listener’s queasy feeling at such maudlin, insincere lines as “We used to be the kind of people who chafed at the word ‘lovers’” (from “Fake Moustache”) and “Oh baby you know, I’m just a dilettante” (from “The Snitch”). Sweeney doesn’t allow us the excuse that the point of view in the song represents a character we can laugh at along with the songwriter. Instead, Sweeney has implicitly adopted a posture of pride in his doggerel, which jars with the alleged insecurity he frequently expresses. Nothing grates more than his pose of self-doubt conveyed with supreme self-assurance, as if he is just waiting for listeners to applaud him for being so wonderfully insightful about himself.


The album’s title has the same annoyingly coy cleverness. In the song from which it’s lifted, “The Counterfeiters”, the phrase is shouted repeatedly in the midst of a bombastic outro and is apparently intended to convey desperate frustration at loving someone unworthy. But as the title of the album, it reads like a cute pun, playing with the slang meaning of “destroy,” a usage that rings pretentious and false even when it’s colloquial. Like the band name, the title undermines Sweeney’s efforts at honesty, leaving us more with a sense of his satisfaction with himself. And special opprobrium must be reserved for “High Tide & Green Grass”, which incorporates the names of Stones songs into a set of lyrics intended to denounce hype and radio playlists, as if the greatest hits album to which the title refers wasn’t built with the same marketing tools. Yes, the Stones are infinitely superior to the Strokes and the White Stripes, to whom Sweeney compares them, so much so that the comparison is irrelevant, giving the Strokes and Stripes unmerited dignity. As a rock critic himself, Sweeney ought to know better than that; he surely knows that the Stones don’t need his support, and that the best way to derail hyped bands is simply to ignore them. But the arbitrary promotion of the Stones does nothing to conceal the envious bitterness that obviously fuels this song; it instead reeks of the sanctimony of someone who wraps himself in the flag.

Robert Horning has developed a substantial body of work in PopMatters' music reviews, concerts, film, and TV sections. His writing has also appeared in Time Out New York and Skyscraper. In his PopMatters column, "Marginal Utility", Rob bridges the abstract and concrete aspects of consumerism. His writing is as grounded and approachable as an everyday trip to the grocery store. Rob has a BA and MA in English Literature; his interests in social theory, economics, and sociology generates his solid background knowledge for "Marginal Utility" and informs his music reviews. For more Rob Horning, be sure to read the Marginal Utility blog.


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