Matthew Sweet: Altered Beast
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The context: With 1991's Girlfriend, Matthew Sweet achieved the greatest success possible for a power-pop rocker: critical hosannas and a cult following. Sweet's forte was bubblegum rock with a bitter lyrical core, and while it was hardly a commercial formula at the peak of grunge rock and gangsta rap, fans expected more of the same on Girlfriend's 1993 follow-up, Altered Beast. And that's what they got. Sort of.
The greatness: Retaining the trademark tangle of guitars (courtesy of punk-era virtuosos Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd) that distinguished Girlfriend, Sweet employed Fleetwood Mac producer Richard Dashut to give the music a '70s soft-rock glow. When Altered Beast was released, many critics thought it lacked Girlfriend's cohesion and straightforward crunch, but in retrospect, Altered Beast's poppy production makes Sweet's creepiest set of songs more palatable. While Girlfriend suggested Sweet still held out hope for romantic relationships, Altered Beast features a desperately bleak outlook. Songs like "Reaching Out" and "Life Without You" (which out-Big Stars Big Star) aren't merely brokenhearted, they're suicidal.
Defining song: Altered Beast's best juxtaposition of pretty melody/despairing lyric comes via "Someone To Pull The Trigger." Reminiscent (in sound and content) of Jackson Browne's "Late For The Sky," it's a lovely country-rock ballad that seems to equate finding Ms. Right with assisted suicide.