At the time, it didn’t seem especially significant, but in retrospect, Matthew Sweet’s ‘90s run is nothing short of miraculous. In just eight years, Sweet churned out five albums—Girlfriend (1991), Altered Beast (1993), 100% Fun (1995), Blue Sky On Mars (1997), and In Reverse (1999)—of perfect pop songs. Those records established Sweet as a gifted scholar and writer, mining rock history to resolve endless contradictions: Hooks and melody dominated his songs in unabashed tribute to his idols, yet he developed an immediately distinctive style of his own. Though he wrote simple, singalong songs, he overlaid them with the frenzied guitar of New York art punks Richard Lloyd (Television) and former Voidoids Robert Quine and Ivan Julian. Above all, he made intelligent, substantive music that was also fun as all hell.
Beginning with 2008’s Sunshine Lies and continuing with 2011’s Modern Art, Sweet shifted voices slightly. Always a devotee of classic pop, he remained committed to tunefulness, but moved away from the ‘60s-style catchiness and efficiency in favor of ‘70s-inflected wandering melodies. While his strength as a musician and songsmith ensured a baseline level of quality, Sunshine nevertheless lacked much of the power of Sweet’s best work. Modern Art improved substantially on its predecessor, stretching more confidently into the ‘70s idiom; songs like “Ivory Tower” and “Ladyfingers” felt less like self-conscious rejections of bubblegum pigeonholing, and more like inspired exploration.
Happily, Tomorrow Forever continues the trajectory; Sweet’s now fully fluent in his newer writing mode. He nods to several different genres, from the wah-wah accented boogie of “Come Correct” to the folksy “Country Girl.” The cheerful glam-inflected stomp of “Pretty Please” ranks with Sweet’s best rockers (“Superbaby,” “Into Your Drug”) without lapsing into the silliness that marred “Room to Rock” and “My Ass Is Grass.” The chiming chords of “Circles” and sturdy hooks of “Finally” resurrect the joyful appeal of Sweet’s golden age.
That appeal stems in large part from Sweet’s use of his voice. Age has roughened the edges a bit -he can no longer pull off the “winsome art student in the back of the classroom” romance effectively—but his vocals retain their Midwestern charm. Album opener “Trick,” for example, celebrates the crunching guitars of vintage Raspberries, but Sweet’s boy-next-door delivery gives the song an innocence that Eric Carmen’s hyper-confident wail couldn’t touch. As always, Sweet’s his own best backup singer; on Tomorrow Forever, as on all of his best work, walls of vocal harmony layer new emotional shades on each song. They give a simmering, smoky sensuality to “Off The Farm” and ensure the bittersweetness in “Bittersweet.”
Above all, the tunes feel much more intentional, and therefore, more substantial. “Entangled” reinforces its lyrics’ meditation on lovers meeting endlessly in parallel universes with a catchy, soaring refrain that comes on without warning and disappears just as quickly. The wide-ranging, reverberating chorus of “The Searcher” climbs ambitiously before cascading back down to the verses.
Once again, Matthew Sweet’s influences come through clearly—a little Big Star here, a lot of T. Rex there, a dash of Fleetwood Mac everywhere—while the music remains distinctively and charmingly his own.