Matthew Sweet: Blue Sky on Mars/In Reverse review – Lost great songwriter at his peak
Blues Sky on Mars/In Reverse [3 stars/4 stars, respectively]
Before we kick off proper into 2019, a year in which we will inevitably listen to more new music from new acts - each hyped up the nines, whether they deserve it or not - spare a thought, if you can, for musicians and songwriters like Matthew Sweet.
For those who might be unaware of Mr Sweet, a recap: after graduating in 1983 from Southeast High School, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA, Sweet moved to Athens, Georgia, to attend college.
At this time, Athens was a hotbed of musical talent, with two bands leading the way for a scene that was as influential to American 1980s pop/rock music as it was to distant onlookers in Ireland and the UK. Both B52s and R.E.M. became so successful that many an A&R team arrived in Athens looking for similar potential success stories.
One of the many musicians rolling around Athens’s town centre was Matthew Sweet, a songwriter who knew and worked with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe (in a duo named Community Trolls) and Stipe’s sister Lynda (in her band, Oh-OK).
In the latter half of the 1980s, Sweet was picked up and dropped by a couple of major record labels. Early albums (his 1986 debut, Inside, 1989’s follow-up, Earth) showed what could euphemistically be called “promise”, but lacked killer songs. Come the 1990s that would change, even if throughout his career the words “little commercial success, very favourable reviews” would follow him like a taunt.
There are periods in some musicians’ careers when timing and everything else that matters (mindset, creative flow, self-belief, collaborators) merge to result in their best work. Certainly, the 1990s was Sweet’s most productive and impressive decade – in 1991, he released Girlfriend (a break-up album that fused The Beatles’ Revolver with Television’s Marquee Moon), but it wasn’t until later in the decade that Sweet’s pigeons, so to speak, came home to roost. Which brings us to the twin release/reissue of 1997’s Blue Sky on Mars and 1999’s In Reverse.
Rewriting Girlfriend’s fortified guitar-pop, Blue Sky on Mars uses swathes of synthesizers to gets its points across. Musically, it is downhome by comparison to previous albums, with Sweet playing virtually every instrument.
Despite its sonic departures, the songs are finely wrought examples of sugary power pop: Missing Time borders on R.E.M. hagiography; Make Believe doffs its hat to Brian Wilson, while Back to You eyes up The Byrds. At just over 36 minutes in length, it’s the perfect distillation of what Sweet could be capable of as a songwriter, albeit perhaps too much in thrall to his heroes.
In Reverse (its upside-down cover a painting by US artist Margaret Keane, the subject of Tim Burton’s 2014 film, Big Eyes) swapped the synths for guitars again, a stylistic turnaround that deservedly brought Sweet his best reviews in years. Clocking in at 55 minutes, virtually every song counts, with Sweet’s tribute mode kept in check by more personalised and less self-indulgent excursions.
There are swooning ballads (Worse to Live, Trade Places), gym-fit tunes (Future Shock, Write Your Own Song), and sumptuous harmonic pop (Beware my Love, If Time Permits). Running in parallel is the album’s lyrical heft, wherein Sweet’s internal emotional status (default setting: glum) is nimbly outlined.
There’s no doubt that Matthew Sweet is one of rock music’s most unfortunately misplaced songwriters. He still releases music (his most recent official album was 2017’s Tomorrow Forever, which was fan-funded via Kickstarter) but it is re-releases such as these that showcase how easy it is for proper talent to fall through the thinnest of cracks.
Let’s be aware of that when we scream about how great our 2019 newbies are – who knows where they’ll be in five years time, let alone 25?