It seems a bit strange that a month before the much-anticipated domestic release of Matthew Sweet’s wondrous return to power pop, Kimi Ga Suki, he should release an album like Living Things. Whereas Kimi is full of crunchy guitars, there’s practically no distortion to speak of on Living Things. And whereas Kimi was a raw collection of quickly recorded, hook-heavy songs, Living Things returns to the densely produced territory of his 2000 release In Reverse.
While working on material with The Thorns, Sweet supposedly sat under a tree with an acoustic guitar and began playing. Within three days, the songs on Living Things were born. Sweet went into the studio with Ric Menck and laid down spontaneous, first-take, bare bones drum, vocal and guitar tracks. These skeletal recordings were eventually built upon with assistance by fellow Sweet regulars Greg Leisz and Tony Marsico as well as multi-instrumentalist Van Dyke Parks.
The end result of this collaboration and organic songwriting is somewhat mixed on first listen. There’s something suspicious about the tinkling steel drums or the children’s novel-sounding title of “The Big Cats of Shambala.” There’s something almost cringe-inducing about the song “Cats vs. Dogs” in which Sweet points out the differences between the owners of said pets. The observations are admittedly banal at best. There’s something about “I Saw Red” that makes it seem like a disingenuine angst tale that didn’t make the cut for Altered Beast, and the trilling marxaphone on “Sunshine” makes the song feel as if it’s overreaching and overfull.
If my favorite power popper was a brash, bittersweet songwriter on his earlier works, here he seems downright domesticated and simplistic on the above efforts. Yet still, there are bright spots to be had on Sweet’s latest. Despite the infelicities of a couple songs, there are others which point to something even better just over the treeline.
The first bright spot is that Sweet’s voice is the best its ever sounded even though the lead vocal heard on the album was done on the first take. This is perhaps best evidenced in the way he clumps and delivers the vocals on the chorus of “In My Time” – switching between extended notes and quick bursts – or the way he groups and manages overdubbed vocals during the hook of “The Season is Over.”
After the big cats mentioned in the opener, Sweet delivers a group of songs that become increasingly infectious on subsequent listens. The drifting refrain that closes “You’re Not Sorry” is bound to bring a smile to those who enjoyed the better parts of In Reverse. The relentless pulse of Marsico’s bass and Menck’s drums on “Dandelion” are a great accompaniment to Sweet’s humming voice and the eventual flight of a theremin. And on “Push the Feelings,” there’s something so undeniably bright and bouncing about the song; it bops and skips around like a kid without a care.
The centerpiece “In My Tree” seems to describe the songwriting enterprise of the album. Sweet describes feeling weary and showing his years though suddenly arriving at a sensation of breaking free and feeling renewed. As the song seemingly ascends into a tree’s canopy, it suggests some of Sweet’s more evocative love songs and songwriting. On the parting “Tomorrow,” Sweet similarly seems to be musing on songwriting and his career. After pondering attempts to turn back time and redo the past, he sings sweetly “Don’t you have to wonder what life has in store? / For tomorrow you’ll be free.” While one would think Parks’ accordion on the song would be intrusive, it actually sounds strangely fitting as the song abruptly concludes.
It’s standouts like “In My Tree” and “Tomorrow” that make Living Things pleasant rather than just merely palatable. Songs like these that flow so effortlessly and exhibit Sweet at his best and his most exhilarating make me realize why I continue to enjoy hearing his voice. And yes, Matthew, I definitely wonder what tomorrow has in store.
The Thorns – The Thorns
Big Star – Number One Record
The Beach Boys – Smiley Smile