Tag Archives: Altered Beast

Someone to Pull the Trigger – Matthew Sweet

Matthew Sweet’s devotion to his song structures and chord sequences – should the solo come before or after the middle eight? What’s the perfect secondary dominant chord to enliven the verse progression? – sometimes sounds like the work of a guy desperately using craft to keep darkness at bay.

While this tendency is present on Girlfriend, it becomes more marked on the follow-up, 1993’s Altered Beast. Sweet named the record after the late 1980s arcade game instantly familiar to kids of that era (like me!) as the game that was bundled with the first version of the Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive as it was known outside the US) until the world-conquering success of Sonic the Hedgehog gave Sega a plausible rival to Mario and Luigi at last. The game – both laughably basic and in its final level infuriatingly difficult. Damn boxing goat warriors – sees you playing as a Greek warrior resurrected by Zeus to rescue the kidnapped Athena (quite why a goddess needs a mortal’s help is not explained. Because patriarchy, I guess). Sweet picked the title because, in his words, “you have to find these little power-up things, and when you eat them you become the Altered Beast, this other creature that’s really powerful and violent.”

So it’s a record about carrying the capacity for darkness inside you – how we cover it up and how it manifests itself anyway. Musically, it’s all over the map compared to Girlfriend, the heavier and more fuzzed-out 100% Fun and the Beach Boys-ish late 1990s duo, Blue Sky on Mars and In Reverse. Sweet tapped producer Richard Dashut, a veteran of Fleetwood Mac’s classic albums, as well as a troupe of musicians from the 1960s and ’70s: Mick Fleetwood, Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello) and Big Star’s Jody Stephens, who play drums on a track or two each; Byron Berline, who’d played with the Byrds and the Band, who plays fiddle on the country-rock Time Capsule, and the great Greg Leisz, who’s played with just about everyone, on pedal steel. This intriguingly multi-generational band was completed by Sweet’s three regular lead guitarists, Ivan Julian, Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine, all veterans of late 1970s punk bands, all cast for their virtuosity and their ability to subvert Sweet’s classicism with sheer squalling noise when the moment demands.

Lyrically, the songs are frequently despairing, with the album’s prettiest song being the darkest. I’ve tried constructing readings of Someone to Pull the Trigger where the song isn’t simply a plea for someone to put the singer out of his misery (in which pulling the trigger is a way of saying “commit to doing something”), but ultimately the text doesn’t support them, and neither does Sweet’s vocal performance. He sounds lost, devoid of hope.

This song and the gorgeous Reaching Out, with Fleetwood on peerless form on drums, are the album’s sad, desperate heart. The more I listen to Sweet’s music, the more I hear the darkness below the Beatlesque chord changes, sunny harmonies and the goofy pop-culture references (in 2020, a record called Altered Beast may as well be called Pong). The clarity, as Sweet puts it, is chilling.

Matthew Sweet @ Islington Assembly Hall, 18/12/18

Matthew Sweet had a cold, which was a little unfortunate, but he’d not played in London for a long time (a guy behind us said 20 years, but surely it couldn’t be that long?), so the show had to go on. While he got his disclaimer in early, he actually coped well vocally, and only on one or two songs was his voice noticeably hampered.

His band, made up of long-time drummer Ric Menck, guitarist Jason Victor and bassist Paul Chastain, were as great as you’d hope, and if Victor isn’t quite Richard Lloyd or Robert Quine, he was still damn good, and supplied the sort of pointed, squalling solos that so distinguised Sweet’s work in the early 1990s. The mix was a little off (bass guitar had no definition, at least where I was standing, and, of course, the vocals were too quiet and the cymbals too loud). But seeing as my friend Nick Frater, who was standing in another part of the room, told me that for him the kick/snare mix was poor, which I didn’t feel was the main problem, perhaps the room swallows up different things depending on where you stand.

Sweet has been busy in the last few years, with an album in 2017, Tomorrow Forever, and a release of outtakes, Forever’s Daughter, just dropped. His set contained five songs from the two records, along with one from Sunshine Lies, but otherwise the set was drawn from his classic trilogy of 1990s albums: Girlfriend, Altered Beast and 100% Fun.

Early highlights of the set for me included Byrdgirl, from Sunshine Lies, and Winona, from Girlfriend – a Neil Young-like country-tinged ballad, built on the simplest of chord sequences and rhythms. The original is decorated with gorgeous pedal steel by Greg Leisz, but Jason Victor did a great job on lead guitar of capturing the weeping feel of Leisz’s playing.

Divine Intervention followed and was appreciatively received, but I was more taken with Sweet’s reading of Someone to Pull the Trigger from Altered Beast. While on record the harmonies and sparkling guitars can sometimes sweeten songs that are crushingly despondent, in live performance the song had a rawness that was very affecting.

We’re the Same, from 100% Fun, was the moment where Sweet’s cold got the better of him vocally. The high notes on the recording are a long way up, so Sweet’s decision to sing the chorus an octave down and have Chastain and Victor cover the high parts was a wise one, but even so Sweet struggled with the high notes. It did hamper the song a bit, but colds are colds. We were lucky he was able to sing at all.

You Don’t Love Me, Girlfriend‘s darkest moment, was a little uncomfortable. The recording smoothed some of the song’s rough edges off with piano and pedal steel. In live performance by a four-piece band, it felt much starker, and as the song neared its end and Sweet sang ad libs while Victor played a molten Neil Young-like solo, it was almost too raw.

New song I Belong To You lightened the mood a bit, but what really got everyone up again was a three-song run of early-’90s classics: Girlfriend, I’ve Been Waiting and Sick of Myself, which was absolutely great. I’m a huge fan of the latter song, and have written about it before, so it was a treat to see Sweet and Ric Menck pound out that deathless guitar-and-drum riff.

After Sick of Myself, rather than walk off, Sweet played feedback and divebombed his guitar’s tremolo arm for several minutes, before cueing the band (who did walk off for a while) into The Searcher from Tomorrow Forever.

Maybe it’s because Sick of Myself was an unimprovable end to the show, or maybe I was a bit grumpy because I’m about 15 years past the point of ever wanting to hear another electric guitarist attempt to deafen everyone with feedback (it’s not 1993 anymore and my ears don’t need the unnecessary beating*), but the encore fell a little flat to me. The Searcher was not a song many in the audience knew, and while Evangeline was, and it was inevitable that Sweet would play it, I’d have rather it had been folded into the main set and there had been no encore.

All in all, though, it was a really good gig. At times I missed a little of the light and shade of the recorded arrangements, and felt that if Sweet had swapped his semi-distorted electric for an acoustic on a few songs, it would have changed things up in a nice way, but there’s simply no arguing with songs as good as Sweet’s, or a band as good.

May he come back again, a little sooner next time.

*For the same reason, the next person who whistles loudly, fingers in mouth, two inches from my earhole had better run.