A few weeks ago I wrote about Ringo Starr’s eponymous album and discussed the number of amazing musicians he got to play with him. I wrote “I guess the fact that Ringo Starr is clearly such a nice guy is demonstrated by the incredible range of musicians that he got to play on this album. It’s a hugely enjoyable listen.” The number of musicians on “Altered Beast” by Matthew Sweet is not quite as big a number but the quality of these musicians is extraordinary. This album is more challenging than Ringo Starr’s album and is ultimately a more satisfying and fulfilling listen. The lyrics are dark and Matthew Sweet explained that the title comes from “whatever is inside you that someday might explode, and maybe you don’t know it’s there”. Does having incredible musicians on an album guarantee that it’s going to be great? No. It’s probably a necessary but not sufficient condition. The pop sensibilities of Matthew Sweet combined with the ferocious lead electric guitar of ex members of Television and The Voidoids create a unified and unique sound. This is what it would be like if Brian Wilson wrote songs with Lou Reed.
Let’s start with “Devil With The Green Eyes”. It appears to be about a broken relationship with the singer accusing his ex of bad mouthing him. What’s much more interesting is that musically it’s incredible. There is a lot of electric guitar from Robert Quine. He was a member of Richard Hell And The Voidoids who produced the seminal USA punk song “Blank Generation” which many disillusioned young people in the Seventies took as their own anthem. Robert Quine also played electric guitar on four Lou Reed albums, “Rain Dogs” by Tom Waits and numerous other albums by, for example, Lloyd Cole, Marianne Faithfull, and Brian Eno. The sound of his guitar here is a of a sinuous crawling snake wrapping itself around the gorgeous harmony singing of Matthew Sweet (harmonising with himself) before embarking on a vicious solo. Robert Quine committed suicide by taking a heroin overdose in 2003. Matthew Sweet has a sweet sunshine-pop voice which is simultaneously lovely and accusatory. Pete Thomas plays drums on this track. He is a member of Elvis Costello and The Attractions as well as playing with Rufus Wainwright, Bonnie Raitt, Rickie Lee Jones, Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams and Randy Newman. The drumming on this song really accentuates the line “Every love I’ve ever known is dead”, giving it extra impetus and importance. Greg Leisz plays lap steel guitar. I’ve written about him before. He has played with everybody, including Ryan Adams, Jackson Browne, Peter Case, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Emmylou Harris, kd lang, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Bruce Springsteen, Loudon Wainwright, Lucinda Williams, Wilco, The Beach Boys, Tracy Chapman, Robbie Williams, Bon Iver, Ringo Starr, David Crosby, Robert Plant and Gillian Welch.
My favourite track is “Falling” which features Richard Lloyd on lead electric guitar. The whole song could be listened to as one long guitar solo by Richard Lloyd who was a member of Television. Fred Maher plays drums and he produced Lou Reed’s “New York” as well as Matthew Sweet’s previous album “Girlfriend”. The song documents the singer’s descent into a living hell “And every day takes something away until there’s nothing left to say. No single world can deliver you love. No understanding no sound from above.” The sound of Richard Lloyd’s guitar colours these feelings in – there are numerous small guitar breaks where loss and despair are the only feelings that remain despite the bouncy up tempo nature of the song. It’s magnificent.
“Someone To Pull The Trigger” is slower and could be about someone who feels their life is over. The third outstanding lead guitarist on this album is Ivan Julian who was also a member of Richard Hell And The Voidoids. The desperation of Matthew Sweet’s voice (and the lyrics) are disguised by some lovely harmonies and a great melody.
“In Too Deep” is more manic and noisy. Richard Lloyd plays out of control guitar throughout the song which is augmented by piano playing from Nicky Hopkins who has played with The Beatles, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, Cat Stevens, Donovan, The Move, Steve Miller, Art Garfunkel, Rod Stewart, Marc Bolan and others. Nicky Hopkins died in 1994 due to complications associated with Crohn’s disease. I don’t know who has the more impressive musical CV – Greg Leisz or Nicky Hopkins? Ric Menck plays drums on this song and he was a member of Velvet Crush whose first album was produced by Matthew Sweet. Lyrically, this song appears to be from the same depth of despair that produced “Someone To Pull The Trigger”. “I’m in too deep, drowning in the fire, burning in the lake, dying from desire.”
“The Ugly Truth” starts with a great riff which is heightened by Byron Berline’s fiddle. He has played with The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Elton John, The Byrds, Willie Nelson, Rod Stewart, The Eagles, The Band, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Tammy Wynette, Stephen Stills, Bill Wyman and Lucinda Williams amongst others. This song appears twice on the album – a fiddle infused version and a guitar drenched version (as heard in the video below).
Matthew Sweet has released seventeen albums. “Altered Beast” was released during a relatively successful period of his career. He has said “the reality is that the times I had the most media success, sold lots of records and played bigger shows, I had the least control of my own life.”