[25 August 2008]
It’s been an odd, low-profile decade for Matthew Sweet. Sweet spent the ‘90s as a successful alt-rocker, releasing five albums, two of which—Girlfriend and 100% Fun—went on to become minor classics. But after 1999’s In Reverse, he sort of dropped off the radar. Which isn’t to say he hasn’t been around. There was 2002’s Japan-only album Kimi Ga Suki*Raifu and 2004’s collaboration with Van Dyke Parks, Living Things. There was also the Thorns, the Crosby, Stills, and Nash-inspired (some would say aping) collaboration with fellow ‘90s singer-songwriters Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge. And let’s not forget his long-standing work with pal Susanna Hoffs from the Bangles and their 2006 album of ‘60s tunes, Under the Covers. So Sweet has stayed in the music business, but Sunshine Lies feels like the first proper Matthew Sweet album since In Reverse. This is Matthew back in full power-pop mode, with all-out rockers, delicate pop tunes, and a tender ballad or two.
The album opens with roughly 30 seconds of noise, indecipherable snippets of speech, and other sound effects before coalescing into “Time Machine”, an upbeat pop song dominated by Sweet’s pretty voice. The lyrics are classic Matthew Sweet, musing about hopping into a time machine and flying away from the shards of a broken relationship to get away from the pain. Sonically, the noisy intro and the inclusion of mellotron and a harp link the song pretty directly to the orchestral wall of sound style of In Reverse. Coupled with the song’s title, it makes for a strong opening statement that Sunshine Lies is going to pick up where Sweet left off in 1999 and not worry about the past nine years.
And for the most part the album does exactly that. This is a strong collection of well-written power-pop songs about relationships, both broken and healthy. “Time Machine” is the only real throwback to that more orchestral sound. Second song “Room to Rock” announces itself with a noisy guitar solo from Ivan Julian, who continues to add flourishes throughout the mid-tempo tune. “Byrdgirl” recalls the bright, chiming guitar riffs of, naturally, the Byrds, as well as Sweet’s own classic song “I’ve Been Waiting”. It’s a solid start to the album, but Sunshine Lies doesn’t really take off until track four, “Flying”. Opening with a hard-rocking riff and a guitar solo from longtime Sweet collaborator (and former Television guitarist) Richard Lloyd, it’s a four-minute chunk of blistering solos, pounding drums, and catchy riffs. Sweet cannily follows this up with “Feel Fear”, the best of the album’s slower songs. The song is built around gentle piano and a beautiful vocal melody that takes full advantage of Sweet’s strong upper range and falsetto.
The album continues its strong middle section with the anthemic “Let’s Love”, which starts with the instantly stuck-in-your head line “‘Cause we’re already good and we’re already evil.” The equally catchy title track comes next, a dense pop gem with at least four separate guitar parts and a great bridge featuring layered harmonies from Susanna Hoffs and Sweet. The back half of the disc is solid as well, continuing to shift between catchy pop songs and equally catchy rockers. The somewhat forlorn “Around You Now” is poignant, as is the album-closing “Back of My Mind”. That song does contain interesting lyrics that find Sweet apparently feeling good and not particularly caring that a friend is not doing so well: “I know you feel so low / ‘cause I’ve been there / I’ll just keep it in the back of my mind / I can’t find the time.”
Sunshine Lies doesn’t quite reach the stratospheric heights of 100% Fun and it may not get him featured in a Guitar Hero game like the title track from Girlfriend, but it’s a very good album. Sweet still knows how to write a great song, and his formula of bringing in strong lead guitarists gives the songs extra punch. One element that’s absent from this album, though, is the playing of Robert Quine, another ‘70s punk guitar icon whose distinctive style was always instantly recognizable on Sweet’s ‘90s albums. Sadly, Quine committed suicide back in 2004, and he is missed here greatly.