How Sweet It Is
One doesn't have to go too far into Living Things to realize this isn't your typical Matthew Sweet album. Whereas much of Sweet's catalog has relied heavily on electric guitar work -- most notably that of Richard Lloyd and the late Robert Quine -- mixed with catchy melodies and emotional honesty, this is something quite different. It's a concept album of sorts, but is most notable for its musical approach (due in large part to Sweet no longer having a major label affiliation).
Here's the story: Having formed a friendship with Brian Wilson, Sweet also became an acquaintance of longtime Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, who makes his presence felt on Living Things. The concept for the album came to Sweet while working on material for album he recorded with Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge under the name The Thorns. When Sweet freed himself up to work on what became Living Things, it all came spilling out and was written in the course of three days. Then when it came time to record, Sweet sat down in his home studio with drummer Ric Menck and laid down guide vocals and acoustic guitar over Menck's rhythms. And those are the tracks that made the final cut. The rest was layered over those base tracks, retained for their spontaneity.
From there, Parks and Sweet added bass, mandolin, harmonica, marxophone, steel drum, organ, piano and other sounds to create what vaguely resembles, well, Sweet's version of Pet Sounds. While these songs are still purebred Sweet, the absence of the dominant electric guitar, the nature theme and the drastic change in approach leave their mark. For a Matthew Sweet devotee, it's nearly shocking.
"Big Cats of Shambala" breaks out of the gate driven by the aforementioned steel drum, sounding like a lost track from the Lion King soundtrack. "Dandelion" tells the tale of a worker bee from the bee's perspective, and the drone of a Theremin sets the musical tone. "Cats vs. Dogs" is kind of like a lost Ringo tune, while "You're Not Sorry" is an instant classic, one of Sweet's trademark ballads (although the melody perhaps cuts a little too close to REO Speedwagon's "I Can't Fight This Feeling"). There's not a radio hit in the bunch, yet there's not a weak track to be found either. And the hopeful closing track, "Tomorrow," buoyed by Parks' accordion, wraps the whole thing up beautifully. In fact, it may be the best of the bunch.
The best part of this is that Sweet sounds more charged than he's sounded since 100% Fun. It's different than anything we've heard before from Mr. Sweet, but somehow it seems to fit. It's amazing what losing a recording contract will do for a guy's muse.