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.