Like a lot of things in life, I came late to the edgy melancholic jangle-pop world of Matthew Sweet. Stumbled across the album after the one that got him known and worked backwards to fill in the history. But although I’m slow, I’m loyal, and we have gone forward resolutely together to the extent that the Vinyl Connection Matthew Sweet Collection is pretty much complete.
(Just don’t mention the ‘covers’ albums with the talented and enduringly delicious Susanna Hoffs or I’ll probably rant about curators versus cannibals in a transparent attempt to cover a wave of pathetic dewy-eyed sighing of a magnitude to make the most smitten adolescent gag. Phew. Did it suddenly get warm in here?)
Back to Mr Sweet. Born in Nebraska, he was playing and making albums in the 80s but his exciting brand of re-invigorated power pop really broke through with 1991’s Girlfriend. If you don’t know his music and are not quite sure about what ‘Power Pop!’ is, here is a Matthew Sweet Warm-up Playlist to get you going:
The Byrds ‘Eight Miles High’
The Beatles ‘Day Tripper’
Big Star ‘September Gurls’
REM ‘Fall on me’
Now if you know all those songs, you may be thinking, ‘Holy Shit! Is he really that good?’ My unequivocal answer is ‘Yep, he is.’ Sweet found a way to breathe new energy into the classic guitar pop formula via a palette of songs ranging from keening vulnerability to stomping psychedelic freakout.
Oddly, the record I want to talk about is not his best. I actually prefer the albums either side, chronologically speaking.
But I recently came across Blue Sky on Mars^ on vinyl and was tempted. Then I saw an intriguing little sticker on the cover and I was sold.
Although never an autograph hunter, there is a small frisson of excitement when one realises that the hand that held the pen that signed the book/CD/concert ticket/buttock is attached to the arm of a revered artist. A sad reflection on our cult of celebrity, I fear, yet as I fumbled to remove the thin plastic packaging I was aware of a tiny tremor of anticipation and I wondered how the autograph would be included.
Texta scrawl across the gatefold?
Little paper insert: ‘Kind Regards, Matthew S’?
Initials on an old shopping list?
Here is how they solved it:
The structure is that of a classic pop album. Two sides, each with six songs from the short and sweet (1:37) to just under five minutes.
‘Going to California’ opens proceedings with stomping rock swagger and a simple but persuasive riff. ‘Back to you’ sits squarely in the Matthew Sweet songbook. It’s a strong melody and a bit of Beach Boys production adds colour, but perhaps not one of his strongest songs.
When he writes about love, there is usually an edge.
Instead of running
Stay and keep it coming
(‘Where do you get love’)
There is a slow groove to ‘Hollow’ that hints at a relationship weariness. It’s a head-nodder with a nice guitar solo, but doesn’t quite achieve escape velocity. ‘Behind the smile’ has the disappointment turned inwards. The singer so wants to be the friend and partner he aspires to, but somehow always falls short. The humanity, expressed in Sweet’s voice, is effective and affecting.
I haven’t been a good friend
While you’ve been mine.
Side one ends with the ballad ‘Until you break’. It’s nice, if a bit pedestrian by Sweet’s high standards.
You need a kicker to begin the second side of an album and ‘Over it’ delivers brilliantly. It’s short, punchy and although the synth solo is slightly unexpected from this guitar-steeped songwriter, it works fine. The next couple of tracks are solid but unspectacular and sum up why Blue Sky On Mars is a worthwhile addition to the Sweet catalogue but not, perhaps, essential. There is not a thing wrong with any of the songs, they just don’t grab your heart or throat or gut as insistently as the best of his work. Having said that, mention should be made of ‘Into Your Drug’, whose woozy groove, neat distorted solo and cut dead ending would make it a shoe-in for the Vinyl Connection Road Trip Album.
If Matthew Sweet heard about me buying the autographed vinyl edition of Blue Sky On Mars and rang to discuss the challenges of signing record labels without smudging, one of the things I’d ask him is, ‘What’s with the title? And the photos of the 1976 Viking 2 Mars landing?’
The only hint I could divine is in a sleeve quote from a university professor’s book on Mars:
The Martian sky – surprisingly bright and rather unromantically described as ‘similar to a smoggy day in Los Angeles’* – was given a bluish cast that was eerily Earthlike.
Maybe Matthew had re-located to LA (remember the opening song?). Whatever. If you liked Girlfriend but don’t have any other Matthew Sweet albums, try In Reverse or 100% Fun. Or 2011’s excellent Modern Art. If you don’t know his music at all, get Girlfriend too.
Another thing I’d tell Matthew is that – in a just universe – he would be as famous and revered as Michael Stipe. And I’d ask for Susanna’s phone number. In my dreams.
* 100% Fun has an absolutely brilliant song called ‘Smog Moon’.
^ Wonder how long this ‘space’ theme is going to continue?
Girlfriend [Sony BMG, 1991]
100% Fun [Zoo, 1995]
Blue Sky On Mars [Zoo, 1997]
In Reverse [Volcano, 1999]
Modern Art [Missing Piece, 2011]