The Carpenters tribute disc If I Were a Carpenter is largely unremarkable. The usual exercise in studied archness, it features a slew of bands covering the duo’s early-’70s radio balladry with tongues planted firmly in cheek. It’s hard not to conclude that most of the artists on the disc were probably far too suave to listen to the Carpenters even if, like me, they were third-graders when the group was in its heyday and their teacher made them warble “Sing” at school assemblies.
Which is why Matthew Sweet’s cover of “Let Me Be the One,” which appears near the end of the collection, is such a shock. Not only is his take on the song a reverent one, but it’s a near-perfect period piece. He croons like Eric Carmen, his absurdly overblown arrangement is historically correct, he delivers the song’s sugary lyrics (“Come to me when things go wrong and there’s no love to light the way”) without evident irony, and he even includes Richard Carpenter’s backing vocals in the mix. Clearly, this is an era in which Sweet feels at home.
He’s not the only one. The recent appearance in D.C. of WZYQ-FM (104.1)—“the ’70s station”—has introduced many of his peers to the shock of finding themselves the target of nostalgia-based marketing. The cover of Sweet’s latest, 100% Fun, places him firmly in this demographic: It features a family snapshot of Sweet as an elementary-schooler, listening to records in a den whose unfortunate decor is clearly Nixon-era. The disc’s lettering is in a groovy lunchbox-style font whose time has thankfully come and gone, and bell-bottomed tykes grace its inside cover.
Sweet’s ‘tude, on the other hand, is unmistakably contemporary. The disc’s title, for example, is a blithely sarcastic response to the complaint that his previous record, Altered Beast, was too depressing. Needless to say, 100% Fun is a misnomer.
Ten percent fun is more like it. Though it’s hard not to love a song called “Sick of Myself,” the album’s opener can hardly be called upbeat. The song—densely layered, damnably catchy, and fueled by self-referential pessimism—sets the tone for the album. (Crisp, trenchant production by Pearl Jam/Soundgarden/Stone Tem ple Pilots producer Brendan O’Brien gives even Sweet’s mopiest compositions a certain hard-edged quality.) Its sentiments are classic Sweet: Love may have put Richard and Karen on top of the world, but for the speaker in “Sick of Myself,” it’s just another means of self-abasement.
Indeed, romantic pessimism is the album’s leitmotif. Someone once called Leonard Cohen “the poet laureate of outrage and romantic despair,” and while the description is a little lofty to suit Sweet, it’s certainly true that he has his finger on the fluttering pulse of modern romance. It’s probably no coincidence that the title of the disc’s second track, “Not When I Need It,” is so often the fitting rejoinder to “I love you.” On “Giving It Back,” a track whose Rubber Soul-era Beatleisms are augmented by air-guitar-style noodling, Sweet sings, “I’m tired of wasting my time away, so I’m giving it back to you.” The oh-so-zany sci-fi sound effects on the martial-drum-propelled “Lost My Mind” accompany a cynical definition of the perfect couple as one whose psychoses are complementary. “You can’t stomach the truth,” Sweet croons, “and I only tell lies.”
In a roundabout way, it’s ironic that so much of Fun, which dwells obsessively on the failure of togetherness, is characterized by the loveliness of its rich harmonies. Then again, Sweet harmonizes with himself. Songs like “Come to Love” and “Not When I Need It” feature a veritable Mormon Tabernacle Choir of Sweets. Such inadvertent declarations of independence aren’t restricted to the disc’s vocals: “We’re the Same,” a dour variation on the adage that familiarity breeds contempt, Sweet plays five instruments in addition to singing.
If, as Freud postulated, sex and death are inexorably linked in the unconscious mind, it stands to reason that Fun‘s secondary thematic concern is growing old. “Everything Changes” has an almost ecumenical feel, as if the titular observation were somehow forbidding. “Smog Moon” is similarly cautionary, noting that “staying young can take its toll.” This last comment seems almost confessional. After all, the disc’s cover shot of the headphone-wearing Sweet as a child is mirrored on the reverse of the CD, where he appears again in headphones as an adult. Yet the unambiguously titled “Get Older,” on which Sweet asks, “Who cares if they don’t think you’re cool?” is actually the closest approximation of optimism on the record. As well it should be: Sweet may be old enough to consistently reinvent the music of his childhood, but he’s also old enough not to care.