Sweet's quietest, subtlest record to date

Blue Sky on Mars (Zoo)
Matthew Sweet

By Mark Clark

Since emerging in 1991 with Girlfriend, Matthew Sweet's trademark sound has played sugary vocal hooks against the scorching guitars of Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine. With Blue Sky on Mars, Sweet turns that formula on its ear.

Lloyd and Quine are gone, at least from this record, and so are the rest of Sweet's band. Stalwart bassist Tony Marsico plays on only one track. Sweet plays virtually everything himself, with the exception of drums (handled by Ric Menck and Love Jones' Stuart Johnson). Producer Brendan O'Brien frequently chips in on keyboards. The result is Sweet's quietest, subtlest record to date. With Lloyd and Quine removed from the arsenal, Sweet relies on clever production and judicious use of synthesizers to fill the sonic gaps. Where his previous albums staged a frontal assault, Blue Sky is a sneak attack.

This reductionist strategy applies to Sweet's lyrics, as well, which are simpler and clearer than ever before. The album's tone seems melancholy, especially following the sunny 100% Fun, but it's not as dark as 1992's Altered Beast. Many of the songs chronicle the tribulations of a difficult relationship: "Just make believe you love and I'll try harder than before," he pleads in "Make Believe"; "I haven't been a good friend since you've been mine," he confesses in "Behind the Smile." Then there's "Missing Time," which is either about the breakup of a relationship or about an alien abduction or quite possibly both.

As usual, there are some terrific songs here: "Come to California," the album's opening cut, is a bluesy rocker unlike anything Sweet has released before; "Back to You" boasts a bittersweet vocal bridge and production flourishes that recall Pet Sounds era Beach Boys; "Hollow" is a spooky, minor-key number spiced with a snarling guitar motif.

But there are more subpar tracks on Blue Sky than fans have come to expect -- perhaps because Lloyd and Quine aren't around to mask thin songwriting with inventive guitarwork. Forgettable cuts like "Over It," "Heaven and Earth" and "Into Your Drug" bring on an unfortunate mid-album lull. The disc recovers for a strong finish with "Make Believe" and the brilliant closing ballad, "Missing Time."

The commercial prospects for Blue Sky appear wobbly because it lacks a standout single like "Girlfriend" or "Sick of Myself." "Where Do You Get Love" -- which is garnering alt-rock radio airplay and is the likely first single -- is an otherwise pedestrian number enlivened by a kitschy, space-synth effect. Diehard Sweet devotees will treasure Blue Sky, regardless. Sure it's hard to hear this album and not imagine what Lloyd could have done with, say, "Come to California." But after a few spins, these infectious melodies and understated lyrics will win them over. Casual listeners, alas, may not hang around long enough for the payoff.