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It’s his real name, says Matthew Sweet: “The record company didn’t pick out a dumb name for me—I came with my own,” he told Puncture magazine in 1992. “At least I didn’t end up as Matt Cougar or something.” Yet the man who made Living Things makes a case for that moniker: The nature-themed album, recorded while Sweet was working on the Thorns project with fellow popsters Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins, opens with a feline roar.
And how: Inspired by Tippi Hedren’s Shambala wildlife preserve in California, “The Big Cats of Shambala” is perhaps the best encapsulation of his aesthetic Sweet has managed yet. After all, what better way to describe pop music—particularly the power pop the Nebraska-born singer has been making for nearly the past two decades—than by the tension between its Hollywood-pretty face and its jungle-lust innards? Not all of Living Things is as delicately balanced as this steel-drum-buoyed opener, but it is more intriguing than the average Sweet album.
When it’s on, it’s spot-on, as in “Push the Feelings”—a song that, Sweetwise, is a shocker. A little electronic trill that sounds like a ring tone is shoved brutally aside by a drum attack; then Sweet advises, “Push the feelings down when they start to come/Take something if you can to knock the edge right off.” Sweet’s range of vocal affect is generally pretty limited—there’s not much between winsome and deadpan—but here he sounds like a misanthropic John Lennon with a melancholy croon: “Put those feelings in their place, ’cause this lousy human race don’t deserve them/They don’t deserve you.” Meanwhile, Greg Leisz on slide, Van Dyke Parks on keyboards, Ric Menck on drums, Tony Marsico on double bass, and Sweet himself on acoustic guitar and electric bass skitter around this bitter yet bouncy tune like bugs under a magnifying glass.
Sweet does his usual genre-hopping here, though it’s hard to write about him without using the adjective “Beatlesque.” “You’re Not Sorry” has a Thorns-y country-rock vibe, with Leisz’s strings and Parks’ piano suggesting we come to the altar and repent even as Sweet’s poor-me vocals evince a stubborn (and not unappealing) self-pity. “I Saw Red” is likewise informed by alt-country—it’s even got a harmonica—and, better yet, sounds less like “Girlfriend” (or “Evangeline” or “Divine Intervention”) than anything else on the album. A credibly creepy swamp-rocker, if it’s not quite a Tom Waits number, it nonetheless suggests that something very bad has happened out behind the barn.
But Sweet’s most unexpected turn is on “Dandelion,” which, like “Shambala,” opens with animal sounds—in this case, chirping birds and the buzzing of a bug. Sweet is broody here, intoning, “Life is no fun” like a Cobain impersonator, but the track is hardly a wrist-slitter, with Parks’ pounding piano joined to a solid heartbeat of drums and bass. Sweet even throws in a theremin here and there, though it comes off more like a big-prairie pedal steel than a horror-flick effect.
To be fair, Living Things isn’t without some dead spots. “In My Time” is more of a cheery riff than a fully formed song. And the faux naiveté of “Cats vs. Dogs” might have worked for, say, Björk, but Leisz and Pete Phillips’ string imitations of animals, coupled with Sweet’s slightly smug delivery, confine its entertainment value to the NickToons set. Of course, to make music like Sweet’s requires a certain amount of forced innocence: You need to believe that every song would make a perfect A-side, and you need to forget all that rock history you know just long enough to write that elusive but eternal melody as if you’ve never heard it before. Call it another one of pop music’s tensions. If Sweet doesn’t quite stretch it through all his Living Things, he at least maintains it for the lion’s share.
Childlike simplicity works better for Sweet on the formerly Japan-only Kimi Ga Suki—except, of course, when he appears to believe that the Japanese market is best served by lyrics that seem to be translated poorly from its own language. “Look straight into the sunrise/It’s waiting only for you/To hear its song,” he sermonizes on “Morning Song,” a homily sure to please that portion of his audience also dedicated to Nyago and Chococat. At least he ennobles the Engrish.com-worthy lyrics with a demo-frail vocal and some light-as-air guitars. He also keeps it short: This grab bag of songs sounds more like a collection of clever outtakes than a proper album, so the best tracks leave you wanting more.
It helps, too, that Kimi Ga Suki’s energy level easily tops Living Things’, perhaps because of the project’s labor-of-love origin. Sweet says he made the record “exclusively for my Japanese fans,” and it’s been out over there since 2003. Recorded just before Living Things, it features many of the same players but is distinguished by the appearance of Sweet’s best-known sideman: Television guitarist Richard Lloyd.
Lloyd never fails to amp up the power in this pop; he’s always a standout, though not so much as to upstage the rest of the company. “I Love You,” a relatively heavy Beatlesque (see?) rocker, features not only Lloyd’s knife-edged riffing, but also a great sludgy beast of a bass line from Sweet. The Lloyd-free “Spiral,” which is more about Menck’s death-march rhythm and Sweet’s spooky, doomed melody, is strong enough to have opened and thematically informed a whole slew of early-’80s rock albums. (Where have you gone, Red Ryder?) Of course, just when “Spiral” is getting really good, Sweet cuts away to a pastoral, “Love Is Gone,” to muse dreamily on the death of dreams.
The delicate songs, like this one, have more backbone than their counterparts on Living Things. The chord changes in “Wait” strike some spot in the soul that opens to sunshine. And I can’t tell you what makes “Tonight We Ride” so sublimely energizing any more than I can tell you what the album title means. “Often when I read Japanese advertisements that make use of English words,” Sweet writes in the liner notes, “the words may be used in amusingly incorrect ways, but also seem pregnant with meaning. I love that kind of thing, so I tried to come up with such an effect in reverse.” No matter how much sense that makes, with songs as good as these, Sweet’s gifts won’t be lost in translation.
Sweet performs at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. For more information, call (202) 393-0930.CP