Matthew Sweet - "Back of the Mind" (Sunshine Lies)
Over two decades into a solo career, the body of work of one Matthew Sweet continues to enervate even ardent fans. These people have followed him throughout much of this time, though most got on board after 1991’s smash Girlfriend, which made him one of the most visible artists of the alt-rock explosion mere moments after Nirvana had primed a public obsession with alternative rock. Its deck was stacked with appearances from a menagerie of stellar musicians and songwriters alike, from Richard Lloyd and the late Robert Quine to Robyn Hitchcock and Lloyd Cole (who had employed Sweet as his bassist, following two stalled, simpering solo efforts in the ’80s), and both its pacing and its demeanor make it a timeless classic. The same can be said about 100% Fun, which followed 1993’s stunted Altered Beast with precisely the right formula that both alt-rock and classic rock radio needed; a time-tested sound, solid songs, and one of the best singles of the decade in “Sick of Myself,” recognized by everyone from Bret Easton Ellis to the line cook that spat in his food.
The relative recession of Sweet’s once-rising star certainly can’t be attributed to any significant shift in his style of play or songwriting stance, which illustrates to a greater sense the limits of power pop as a genre, and why it’s going to stay in the corner despite who or how it’s being revived. At any moment in time since “Open My Eyes” by the Nazz, there has been at least one extant, sterling example of power pop being executed by some hotshot somewhere in the world. Right now we have Gentleman Jesse and His Men, for one, holding up the tent. Problem is, for a style of music that factors timelessness into its rationale for success, it’s wedded to pop, and the requisite demand it creates. In most cases, the crowd runs off soon after the song ends. What that’s created for someone like Matthew Sweet is a certain resonance, the lingering of something great and the possibility for it to happen again.
Sunshine Lies, his 10th studio album, expends its entire runtime to get to that point. “Back of the Mind,” the final song here, is of a piece with Sweet’s best material, carrying with it similarities to what not only fans, but the public, remember him for: sturdy songwriting, a soaring chorus, guitar heroism (provided, again, by Lloyd), and lingering positive vibes. It’s somewhat unfortunate, then, that Sweet spends so much time getting back to it. He doesn’t really owe anyone any sort of explanation as an artist, but to what do we blame this sort of inconsistency between efforts? His last, a collection of covers sung with Susanna Hoffs (who appears here as well) might have been fun to make, but certainly didn’t improve on any of the originals, in most cases producing pop wonders like the Zombies’ “Care of Cell 44” to within an inch of its life. Prior to that, the Japanese EP Kimi Ga Suki found him right back in the zone.
What gives? Why do guys in Sweet’s position, for that matter, continually return to that balding bromide of the middle-age reassurance song, like on Sunshine Lies’ “Room to Rock”? Why, in a career of memorable highs, would he ape the Mellotron of “Strawbery Fields Forever” on opener “Time Machine” (not to mention that awkward, backward song intro, formerly seen on his 1999 album – ugh – In Reverse)?
It’s frustrating to see someone taking the middle of the road, especially Sweet, who can do better, and has done better, but there’s no sense in questioning it. His records sport the occasional answer, but no real need to change up his stance; no reward in innovation or drive to push harder in an industry evaporating in the digital sun. When you see Matthew Sweet live, or check out any of his records post-career arc, you’re likely to get what you came for. You might even be surprised. Then again, you might not.