MATTHEW SWEET’S AUDACIOUS, CAPTIVATING MODERN ART
By Bud Scoppa
During a career that stretches back to the mid-’80s, Matthew Sweet has never followed trends, though his landmark 1991 album Girlfriend was responsible for starting one—its bone-dry, caterwauling sonics opening up a wild and picturesque new terrain for restless singer/songwriters to inhabit and explore. Two decades later, Sweet has once again swung for the fences—and connected—with the boldly experimental yet still deeply personal Modern Art.
Defiantly unorthodox, but often playfully so, Modern Art is a stealth album, embedded with half-hidden hooks lurking in its recesses, just out of focus, waiting to be discovered. Nope, this is not a one-listen album, but a progressive deepening has always characterizes the most memorable longplayers, whose authors rarely put all their cards on the table right away. Not that there aren’t some instant grabbers here: “She Walks the Night” captures the Byrds of “Eight Miles High,” while “Ladyfingers” stomps along with the authority of T.Rex, and the tortured “My Ass Is Grass” could serve as the belated follow-up to “Sick of Myself,” the hit single from Sweet’s 1995 LP 100% Fun. At the other extreme are provocative, soul-deep, virtually unprecedented tracks like “Oh, Oldendaze!,” “Late Nights With the Power Pop,” “Modern Art,” “Evil by Design, Goodbye Nature,” “At the Screen (With the World Flowing In)” and “Nowhere.”
For this record, Sweet discarded his normal process of laying down ideas as they came to him and shaping them into songs. Instead, he allowed those spontaneous kernels of music dictate the direction of each piece. Rather than bringing his left brain into the process, he put his right brain in charge and simply let it rip.
“In the past, I’d make deliberate changes of structure and normalize things,” says Sweet. “But this time, I wanted to make it abstract but still human and natural. I had a lot of tapes of me coming up with ideas for songs, but I hadn’t fleshed them out—just raw melodies, stream-of-consciousness lyrics or me humming along, that sort of thing. So with the first song, which became ‘Oh, Oldendaze,’ I took the exact structure of me making up the song—I’d do something for a while, and then I’d go to some other section of chords—and I decided have that preordain the structure, keeping that original raw idea exactly the way it was. That approach gave it a super-personal feel that was really melodic and musical but still different, so I ran with it. And in an odd way, this record feels more like me than anything I’ve done.”
Still evident through this musical and sonic shell game are echoes of Sweet’s touchstones: the Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys and Big Star. “Although I really didn’t think about other music while making the record, if those things are there, it’s just because I love them,” he says. “And even the long songs with all that weirdness in them tend to have recognizable parts.” Indeed, these exploratory songs exemplify the very quality Sweet finds in his treasured Big Star albums. “When I discovered Big Star at the end of high school, it was the greatest thing ever, and Alex Chilton became one of my heroes,” he recalls. “What I loved about Alex’s thing was that it was pure emotion—you experienced his feelings through the music. And that’s the kind of music I love: when an artist seems like they’re really feeling something.”
Sweet made the record with just two other musicians. As usual, Velvet Crush founder Ric Menck does all the drumming (except for “Ivory Tower,” which is built on a random drum pattern supplied by Matthew’s friend Fred Armison, an SNL cast member best known for his Obama impressions). Dennis Taylor’s deft and urgent guitar lines serve as a running commentary to Sweet’s introspective singing, playing a similar role to those of Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd on Girlfriend. Matthew discovered his new secret weapon working as a guitar tech for his friends the Bangles, and couldn’t believe his good fortune. “Dennis was exactly what I’d been looking for,” he says.
As for the title, Sweet explains, “I first wrote down the phrase ‘modern art’ as a possible song title, and it struck a chord with me because of its similarity to ‘modern heart’—like a stare-down between the strange newness of time and the living and feeling-filled but surely doomed heart.”
Near the end of the recording, Matthew’s wife Lisa discovered a quote from Picasso that she felt spoke to the purity of the process that had led to Modern Art: “If only we could pull out our brain and use only our eyes.” Says Matthew, “I love the idea of getting rid of intent and just seeing what happens; finding your world in there.”
The album’s inventiveness extends to its final stages, which went down at Glenn Schick Mastering in Atlanta. The mastering was done with Schick’s unique “triple analog” process: After going through a special chain of analog gear not once but twice, all the masters were then cut to virgin lacquer, and then transferred back to digital. The result is a remarkably immediate and full-bodied listening experience. “It’s not too loud, because we wanted to allow the dynamics to breathe,” Schick explains.
Never has an album’s title more accurately described its content. It’s fitting that Modern Art will appear on the 20th anniversary of Girlfriend.