Matthew Sweet's 'In Reverse' is a real step backwards

by Joe Manera | 10/26/99 5:00am

Matthew Sweet has spent the better part of the decade trying to work his way out of a lose-lose situation. 1991's "Girlfriend," his greatest critical and commercial hit, was a sunlit pop platter that quickly became an albatross for the artist himself. Not the most adventurous working musician, Sweet has continued to mine the same Phil Spector wall-of-sound territory album after album with increasingly diminishing returns.

If Sweet had written himself into an unenviable binary -- either repeat the cocoa-puff pop formula and be accused of going soft or spin off into wild directions and get labeled soft-headed -- it's clear he's opted for the former. Which is too bad, really. His lovingly retro approach, when it doesn't work, speaks more for arrested development than it does for idol worship.

While Sweet hasn't lived up to his initial promise just yet, he hasn't exactly spent the entire decade pounding out derivative swill, either. His signature guitar crunch graciously lent itself to his best crop of tunes in 1995's "100% Fun," but that record seemed a bit of a fluke since it was sandwiched between two dogs.

"Fun" was Good Matthew. The more Sweet records, the easier it is to detect which camp an album belongs to. If Bad Matthew is insufferable -- canned and poppy-bad -- then Good Matthew is transcendent, crisp and poppy-good. Compare "Fun" with the 1997 debacle "Blue Sky on Mars" just to see how far the man can veer to either side.

The main reason for "Fun"'s success was that it finally brushed up against maturity. If seemed as if Sweet realized that he'd best edge towards adulthood if he planned on hiding behind multi-tracked harmonies for the rest of his career.

Alas, signs of growth disappeared after "Fun"'s tart luster faded. Sweet's stubborn retro-ness, anim admiration and other geek kid hang-ups compounded a popular impression: this boy just wasn't growing up anytime soon.

He'd better hope his fans don't, either. Sweet's influence is felt, but he's been out of the game for a long time. The seed of "Girlfriend" has allowed lesser blooms like Tal Bachman to flourish on the radio. Can Peter Pan fly in 1999?

Given his commercial insignificance and the thinness of his recent output, it is especially heartening to hear the first few songs off of Sweet's latest, "In Reverse." "Millennium Blues," despite its unfortunately opportunistic title, boasts an ambitious bassline woven into the pure rock infrastructure. "If Time Permits" and "Beware My love" are memory-laden and 70's-sunny.

This is Good Matthew, the delicate-voiced troubadour that can transcend the Brian Wilson comparisons. His melodic sensibility is truly impressive, his obvious love of pop craftsmanship intoxicating. He gets a chemical surge out of three-way harmonies and syrupy orchestral maneuverings. In these moments, it seems doubtful that a more aptly-named pop star ever existed. You'd think that the disc would collect sugar rather than dust.

The first three tracks are marvels, but Good Matthew is all over this CD. Unfortunately, he's never in one place for very long. "What Matters" is the only other song that achieves total aural bliss, and that comes at the album's three-quarter mark.

Unfortunately, then, it's Bad Matthew who steers the ship for the rest of the album. This will be, I fear, one of those pesky CDs that remains in the back of your collection. It's solid enough to avoid selling but ultimately too unimpressive to go into personal heavy rotation on your stereo.

When Bad Matthew makes his theremin-laced entrance by the fifth track, his thin voice is grating rather than endearing, his studio finesse show-offy rather than inspiring. And he's whiny. Very, very whiny.

Bad Matthew's biggest offense here is "Write Your Own Song," a bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you punch directed at his record label. Apparently upset that his bosses wish he'd write more hits, Bad Matthew vents his anger and asserts his artistic integrity in a song that, of course, will never top any charts.

Artists usually sound petulant when railing against corporate entities, and these types of songs are really as self-indulgent as a musician can get.

Sweet somehow sounds worse than most, though. Never lyrically adept, his stings against the dollar-men come off as weak and cliched as his put-downs of ex-loves. "I guess I live in a world you'll never get a glimpse inside of / If the thought of me selling out gets you excited," he boasts.

Other too-pure-for-this-world self-righteousness is interspersed throughout the record. Sweet is fond of declaring his misery and not taking any share of the blame for it, which means he's still the archetypal sensitive brat, mad and weepy and always ready to point the finger. This really is too accomplished an album to be considered awful, but it's disappointing enough to beg a question: If Matthew Sweet ever grows up, will anyone still be listening?

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