Sweet’s greatest talent has long been his ability to shock and surprise at exactly the right time.
Power pop is alive, well and headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska with Matthew Sweet, author of “Sick of Myself,” “Girlfriend” and other exemplars of the form. Sweet’s talent for hot-burnt guitar tones, soaring vocals and lyrics that sometimes belie the buoyant music remains intact on this new 17-song collection. The at times sprawling album is tailor-made for the vinyl resurgence, a small irony that shouldn’t be lost on us: Sweet came crawling from the cool, jeweled kudzu of Georgia at the height of the compact disc era, arriving more or less as the medium was drying up, going the way of coke mirrors and big trucker belt buckles. He’s still making the same music, the stuff that we loners and dreamers desperately need, but doing it in the age of crowd-funding and streaming, when once more he seems just a little out of step with the times.
Despite that, his music speaks to the heart of everyone. Songs bore their way into our memory in the blink of an ear: with a guitar hook, a jangly chord progression, the nakedness of his vocal performance, an epiphany in his lyrics. Sometimes it’s all wrapped up in one neat package that leaves you dragging your jaw up from the floor.
Sweet’s greatest talent has long been his ability to shock and surprise at exactly the right time. This collection’s three-minute and change “Circle” crashes and bangs with all the aplomb of Badfinger at its peak while our hero’s guitar playing walks a fine line between Betts and Zappa, sometimes teetering on the edge of incredulity as his bends and strums beg us to redefine the distance between master and beginner. You can easily imagine that this is either the first song he’s written or the 400th. It’s innocent enough to be disarming and sophisticated enough to rest just beyond our own reach of accomplishment.
The gorgeous guitar orchestration of “Haunted,” lies somewhere between Big Star and Derek and The Dominoes, with a plaintive piano figure weave and deftly-realized harmonies that any power pop group would give their eye teeth to realize. But it’s not all artsy-fartsy stuff, either. “The Searcher” provides a dose of the serrated, blues-and-brawn brown acid that gets nice and dark, and like Lake Michigan never gives up its dead, reveling in the secrets its holds like Alex Chilton’s deep-diving psychosis on Third.
At some point, every artist has to be compared to him (or her)self: Is there anything here that rises to the level of “Girlfriend,” etc.? Sure. “Music for Love” is this summer’s college radio hit; “Pretty Please” is worthy of an irony-tinged video with cameos galore and so forth.
But we’re not listening to Sweet for nostalgia, are we? He runs deeper than that, giving us a perfect antithesis to computer-constructed compositions and mindless post-ironic lyrics. You could call that nostalgia or you could call it truth, and across numbers such as the bright-eyed “You Knew Me” (a new career high) and the plaintive “Country Girl.” Others, such as “Come Correct,” sound positively angry and forward-thinking, the stuff of a man who’s not so much thinking about what he did in the glory days of 120 Minutes as what he’ll do once he’s accepting an award for Artist Hungrier Than All You Young Kids at some point in early 2018.
In a year when Cheap Trick, Styx and other once-labeled dinosaurs are delivering the best music of the year, Sweet’s latest entry is a reminder that time-tested artists often still have fuel in the tank and fire in the belly. This man has both in ample supply and one can only gaze longingly toward a future where even more new compositions from this master emerge and reveal more to us than we thought to ask.