“At the major label, they always wanted to get all involved,” Matthew Sweet explains. “‘Who are you going to work with?’ and, ‘What are you going to do?’ and, ‘Is it the right record?’ I just got so sick of hearing that. What’s the right record? Does that exist? [Laughs] I want to make the wrong record.”
On October 19th, Sweet will release Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu and Living Things, two of the most enjoyably wrong records of his career.
Both albums hint at previous Sweet touchstones, but not necessarily as rehashed versions of old classics. And both benefit from a newfound enthusiasm, as Sweet found himself a free agent after more than a decade on a major label. Kimi was the first recorded, and, for a lucky few, the first released. Sweet recorded the album in 2002 and released it in Japan last year as a “thank you” to his Japanese fans. The record also marked a reunion of many of the players from his landmark 1991 power pop album Girlfriend, including Television guitarist Richard Lloyd, drummer Ric Menck and multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz. “It was a fantasy situation,” he says. “The industry had always made me feel so pressurized. I felt like I was always failing, which was a drag. But Japan represented this mystical, far-off place to me, and I just felt free and without pressure to record this record at my own home studio, which is something I’d wanted to do for years.”
Kimi crackles with Girlfriend‘s familiar (and almost familial) energy, as Lloyd and Sweet’s guitars provide antagonistic foils as they did more than a decade before on cuts like “Tonight We Ride.” And tasteful country flourishes on “I Don’t Want to Know” hint at Girlfriend‘s “Winona.”
As for Living Things, recorded just two months after Kimi, Sweet likens its creation to the process behind 1993’s Altered Beast, a record with which it shares little sonically. Altered Beast was the sound of a not-so-sugary Sweet — he calls it “the Quine record,” referencing late punk guitarist Robert Quine whose inimitable style provided some of Beast‘s bite — with barbed lyrics and slashing guitars. He also fesses that Beast‘s production was difficult, as he had trouble communicating with other musicians and his label what it was he wanted to record. Sweet says Living Things was recorded “with much more clarity than I had then,” but he admits that the sessions shared with those of Beast a similar manic energy and some extended outros.
Still, a glaring difference is immediately detectable, as Living Things was recorded almost completely without an electric guitar in sight. For that reason alone, Living Things sounds like nothing else in Sweet’s catalog. In some respects, it shares the lush, layered production of his last record, 1999’s In Reverse. But if In Reverse suggested ELO, Living Things shares some DNA with the Beach Boys and Bread, pairing fragile, sad melodies of the latter with the broad-based instrumentation and sound effects of the former.
The record wastes no time hiding its surprising palette, opening with a deliciously peculiar steel drum on the odd and engaging “The Big Cats of Shambala,” a song inspired by some close encounters with lions and tigers at actress-turned-activist Tippi Hedren’s preserve in Southern California. “The sound of a lion roaring is an awesome thing,” he says. “It shakes the whole ground.”
Living Things marries Menck’s drums with Sweet’s acoustic guitar as the organic backbone for its eleven songs. Leisz returns to add a hodgepodge of instrumental embellishment (including various slide guitars, mandolins and mandolas), as does Brian Wilson’s reliable foil Van Dyke Parks, who provides all sorts of keys and serves as “something kind of like a guru,” by Sweet’s account. Parks also helped Sweet put a pop sheen on some of his sadder songs.
“I do love those melancholy kinds of melodies — my love of Brian Wilson comes from that — and I tried to get that into the record,” he says. “I also left in a lot of those long endings. Those ended up being some of my favorite parts of the record, the instruments were so delicately plucked that I liked being able to hear them. There was a hypnotic magic to it. The interesting thing, though, is that I still think the record rocks.”
The record is also one of his most dynamic vocally, as though energy of the late-Sixties influence has loosened him up as a singer, with echoes of David Gates’ sad textures on “You’re Not Sorry,” and a falsetto on “Push the Feelings” that somehow hearkens to both Brian Wilson’s untethered, childlike voice and Robert Plant’s primal roar.
The dual releases also end a five-year drought for new material. He’s hardly been MIA during that spell, though. Since releasing In Reverse in 1999, he issued a career retrospective in 2000, a collection of early recordings in 2002 and an album of acoustic pop with Pete Droge and Shawn Mullins (as the Thorns) last year. He’s also made a few appearances on recordings for others, including writing with Hanson for their latest album.
And while Living Things sounds like a new side of Matthew Sweet, it’s not an entirely unexpected one. In a way, the biggest thing that has changed over the past five years is his creative comfort level. He jokes that his manager recently told him, “You’ve never let anybody tell you what album to make.” Indeed, when people expected Girlfriend 2, he gave them an angrier Beast. There have been returns to straightforward power pop (1995’s 100% Fun), as well as slight detours like the conceptual In Reverse.
From a strictly financial standpoint, he’s optimistic these days, as he’s crunched the numbers and realized it takes a far more modest sales goal to make a living independently than it did recording for a major. “It’s been my dream,” he says, “to be able to put out music more often and not wait for somebody’s input on how it should be worked.”
Excited about the possibilities of making unfettered music at his own pace, Sweet is already looking ahead to the next record. Between Quine’s passing and the woody textures of Living Things, he sounds poised to plug things in. “I feel real refreshed on electric guitar,” he says. “My intention is to do something really rocking. There is a monster guitar record out there . . . maybe not necessarily a monster in terms of being great [laughs]. But a big scary guitar monster of some sort, nonetheless.”