Matthew Sweet: Living Things / Kimi Ga Suki

Seth Limmer

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.

Matthew Sweet

Living Things

Label: Superdeformed
US Release Date: 2004-09-07
UK Release Date: 2004-11-22

"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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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