Perfect Sound Forever

Matthew Sweet's Kimi ga Suki * Raifu (2003)

Power Pop Transcendence
By Kurt Wildermuth
(February 2023)

Since . . .

Since you're reading this piece, you're probably one of the following: my domestic partner, her mother, my elementary school music teacher, Perfect Sound Forever's head honcho, a Matthew Sweet fan, a power pop listener, or some combination of these things. Of course, it's possible you're just curious.

If . . .

If you're not a power pop listener, you probably would benefit from a definition of the genre. Let's stick to basics. Imagine the Beatles' music in the first half of their recording career, from 1962 until 1965, from Please Please Me through Rubber Soul, before, starting with 1966's Revolver, they got all complicated with recording experiments, electronics, ambitious themes, and unusual song structures. Their initial songs were creative and groundbreaking but firmly within the pop/rock traditions of their sources, such as rockabilly, R&B, Motown, and girl groups.

Now . . .

Now take that early Beatles' music and make it louder and harder. In other words, put the rockin' power into a particular kind of pop and you've got power pop. This subgenre has been around pretty much since the Beatles split, in 1970. Other rockers--such as the Who, the Beach Boys, and the Byrds--are also seen as power pop progenitors, but again, we're keeping things streamlined.

If . . .

If you're a Matthew Sweet fan, you probably know all this.

If Not . . .

If you're not a Matthew Sweet fan, you're probably wondering why you should care about his music. In a sense, you don't need to. No matter how much you might enjoy it, Sweet's work won't change your life. Oh, if you're young and wondering what to do with your time, hearing some of his recordings might inspire you to pick up a guitar and play, just like yesterday--just like, say, the latest lofi bedroom-recording sensation.

If Not . . .

Otherwise, I can't make a strong case for caring about Matthew Sweet. He's not the most gifted singer, songwriter, musician, or recording artist. And yet, put all his talents together and you have some highly satisfying updates to traditions that have changed, even saved, people's lives.

If . . .

If those traditions matter to you and you enjoy hearing their offshoots, if you want to understand how Matthew Sweet is the keeper of a flame, you're probably best off veering out of this article and into the vast loneliness of the web to fill yourself in on Sweet's work. Download some tracks, sample songs on YouTube, what have you.

If . . .

If you like his pleasant voice, his melodic sense, his knack for guitar textures, return to this point, this node, in the time/space continuum. In particular--to put the subject of this article, Sweet's two-decades-old Kimi ga Suki * Raifu, in context--you want to have some knowledge of three recordings on which Sweet's status as a power pop purveyor rests: Girlfriend (1991), Altered Beast (1993), and 100% Fun (1995).

So . . .

On the recordings preceding those three pillars, Sweet was finding his feet. The 2002 compilation To Understand: The Early Recordings of Matthew Sweet takes you on a highlights tour through his '80s jangle-pop years in the Athens, Georgia, bands The Buzz of Delight (with drummer David Pierce; a little R.E.M., a little Pylon, a little forgettable) and Oh OK (with Linda Hopper, Linda Stipe, and either Pierce or David McNair on drums; not included on this compilation, but their music has recently been reissued)"; his first solo album, 1986's undistinguished Inside; and his sophomore offering, 1989's greatly underrated Earth.

On . . .

On the latter, the pop was in place, but the power was missing because the sound wasn't dense enough. Aided by the album's coproducers, David M. Allen (who'd worked with the Cure, the Sisters of Mercy, the Chameleons UK) and Fred Maher (who'd played drums with Scritti Politti, Material, Lou Reed), Sweet had found what he was looking for, but it wasn't necessarily what his target audience wanted to hear. However, he had worked with musicians who would coalesce into his signature sound--to some ears, his signal achievement--on Girlfriend.

Then . . .

That album, produced by Sweet and Maher, still sounds like a miracle, as the power popster crystallizes all his talents. Girlfriend can have you writhing ecstatically with its combination of crunching rhythm section (bass by Sweet and Paul Chastain of the power pop band Velvet Crush; drums by Maher, Ron Pangborn, and Ric Menck of Velvet Crush); pedal steel guitar from Greg Leisz (who has played with a staggeringly large number of household names, or names that should be household, from k.d. lang to Joni Mitchell to, hey, Velvet Crush on their 1994 masterpiece Teenage Symphonies to God, where Sweet also appears); and, most vitally, lead guitars from Robert Quine, Ivan Julian, and Richard Lloyd.

Like . . .

Like Fred Maher, the first two of these guitarists were former members of the classic late-'70s New York band Richard Hell and the Voidoids. The third was a former member of the classic late-'70s New York band Television. To fans of classic late-'70s New York music--call it punk, but these bands weren't punk, exactly, except in spurts--these names advertise that Girlfriend was a torchbearer for a very cool sensibility. Think of it as slouching people wearing dark sunglasses and making catchy music with noisy edges.

But . . .

Catchy and noisy don't always equal evolved, however, and Girlfriend can also have you wincing at its lyrical lapses, such as "Could you be my little movie star?" in "Winona" (a goofy yet touching little love note to Ms. Ryder, an It girl at the time), "Try her on / She fits like a glove" in "Evangeline," and all of "Does She Talk?" (a nasty rant about a woman who done him wrong, which could be accused of sexism or misogyny if it were coherent).

But . . .

Altered Beast, produced by Sweet and Richard Dashut, goes lighter on the inanities but also lessens the instrumental crunch. Dashut produced Fleetwood Mac's best-known albums, including Rumours (1977) and Tusk (1979), and Mick Fleetwood drums a bit here, as does Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello's Attractions. Quine, Julian, and Lloyd return on individual tracks. Again, we're talking an often potent stew of accessible pop and attitudinous rock.

And . . .

Lyrically, the loathing of "Does She Talk?" becomes the self-loathing that permeates these tracks. Listeners who wonder what that self-loathing might sound like with more bite might try the Son of Altered Beast EP (1994), which opens with a powerful remix of the Altered Beast standout track "Devil with the Green Eyes" then proceeds through fierce live versions of two songs from the album plus other choice cuts.

Then . . .

100% Fun aims to avoid the mushy middle ground of Altered Beast, such as by bringing back the punchy drums that had gone missing. Alas, it mixes undeniable songs, such as the alternative rock hit "Sick of Myself," with forgettable ones, such as "I Almost Forgot" and others I do forget. It also suffers somewhat from the pummeling effect that the producer, Brendan O'Brien, brought to other so-called alternative acts of the time, prominently Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. With Quine, Lloyd, Leisz, and Menck still on the team, however, you would never mistake Sweet's band for anyone else (or anyone else's).

On . . .

On recordings after his Big Three, Sweet experimented--sonically, lyrically, collaboratively--to sometimes effective, sometimes puzzling, and sometimes bland results. He has always been an album artist in the old-fashioned sense, an assembler of tracks in a given order meant to take the listener on a journey. Yet as indicated above, Sweet's albums have their inconsistencies. Even if you want to hear what he has done on a particular outing, you won't necessarily like it. You might wonder what he was thinking, but you don't necessarily want to know.

Then . . .

Come 2001, Sweet felt inspired to thank his fanbase in Japan. The phrase "big in Japan" has become a cliché because audiences in that country can be so fervent and loyal. They also, like the French, have a knack for appreciating aspects of culture, high and low, not so esteemed elsewhere. One perfect example is Cheap Trick's instant classic Live at Budokan (1978), whose blistering versions of "I Want You to Want Me," "Surrender," and "Ain't That a Shame" propelled Cheap Trick from a marginal power pop outfit to a household name.

The screaming audience on Live at Budokan--astonishingly like the screaming audiences at the height of Beatlemania, in the early to mid-sixties--may have passed its DNA to Matthew Sweet's fanbase in Japan. In any case, Sweet thanked the Japanese with Kimi ga Suki * Raifu, a CD, as he explains in his liner notes, "created with my love of Japan in mind!" and released by Japan's Cutting Edge label. The title, he goes on to explain, is an intentional "amusingly incorrect" use of Japanese, a playful reference to the often "a little strange or wrong, but still meaningful!" uses of English in Japanese advertisements. "The true definition is supposed to be a 'love you' life, one devoted to loving someone or something, even life itself!"

Sweet lives up to his name. The tenor of his liner notes, the generosity of spirit behind the creation of this album, and the songs themselves suggest that whatever demons plagued him in the past were not around. He sounds like he had arrived in a good place, if only for resting.

To give his "love letter to Japan . . . a unique and spontaneous feeling," Sweet wrote the songs during one week in January 2002. Without making demos, he recorded the album at home, producing, engineering, and mixing it himself. Accompanying him were Ric Menck, Richard Lloyd, and Greg Leisz--"essentially making this a Girlfriend-era line-up," he notes.

Interest in Kimi ga Suki * Raifu outside Japan proved strong enough that the CD was released internationally on RCAM Records. Since then, it has settled comfortably within the man's mixed bag of works and was issued as a limited-edition vinyl LP by Glass Modern in 2019. And I'm here to tell you--it's taken a while, with all that buildup, but here it is: If this kind of music appeals to you, you should get to know this recording.

Why . . .

You might not be impressed by the opening song, "Dead Smile." The players tear into it, but the track represents standard-issue alternative-rock throat clearing, an announcement of the intention to rock. The muddy vocal mix doesn't help, but the fierce drumming does. Still, tenderness lurks within the brawn. The nicest passage comes when the tempo slows and the full electric band gives way to Sweet's acoustic strumming and reiteration of the lyrical centerpiece:

We are not so many worlds apart
I am finished, you are at the start
Finding out, I tried to tell you
I tried to tell you

But just what the singer means and whom he's talking to remain elusive.

The person addressed in the next track, "Morning Song," doesn't matter. The message is universal for any conscious, sighted, hearing person with access to the dawn--all of this potentially metaphorical:

Open your eyes
Look straight into the sunrise
It's waiting only for you
To hear its song

In its gentleness and elegance, "Morning Song" represents the heart, not just the head, within power pop. Or we might see this song as expanding power pop's emotional and stylistic palette--past the Beatles' compilation 1962-1966 (aka the Red Album) and into its companion, 1967-1970 (aka the Blue Album). Or look at it this way: With its languorous tempo, vaguely Eastern melody, and multipart harmonies complemented by psychedelic guitar sounds, "Morning Song" could fit on a later Beatles album, whereas power pop generally derives from the band's earlier works.

Or really, since the Beatles were always a cut above their peers emotionally and stylistically, let's say this song goes where power pop adherents don't necessarily. You can stick to the genre while staying in your teenage bedroom and staring at your Charlie's Angels poster, but Sweet, as he always does at his best, strives for a more transcendent view of love and devotion.

Consider that what saves Girlfriend from its dopiest moments are songs that raise the stakes, such as the nonpreachily religious "Divine Intervention," the convincingly existential "Looking at the Sun," the majestically lovestruck "Day for Night," and the pragmatically philosophical "Nothing Lasts." On Kimi ga Suki * Raifu, nearly every song raises the stakes. It's Sweet's most consistently strong and memorable batch of songs since Girlfriend. The lyrics may not be genius, but they include no lapses.

And indeed, "Morning Song" could be a cousin to "Nothing Lasts," translating the earlier song's contemplation of time--"I have tried to hang on to the past / But I couldn't keep my grasp"--into

Every day that passes won't be right for you
But among the days
You'll find a personal place
Is waiting only for you
This is your morning song

All in all, it's lovely and Matthew Sweet at his most charming.

If "Morning Song" sounds like side 1 of 1968's The Beatles (aka the White Album), "I Love You" is from side 3, the one with the rockers "Birthday," "Yer Blues," "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey," and "Helter Skelter." In its plain-spokenness, Sweet's slow stomper, a two-minute Godzilla, also recalls "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," from 1969's Abbey Road. John Lennon compared that song to a drowning person's cry for help, and Sweet illustrates the same urgency:

My mind in a fever
My heart a deceiver
But I'll take a chance again
Got no place to go to
Don't have you to live through
Feels like I am close to death
It's so frightening
And I want you to know
I'm missing you, I'm missing you, darling
I love you in every way

It's as though Sweet has inherited Lennon's ability to sing a line so it X-rays his emotional center.

Elsewhere, Sweet delivers perfectly constructed pop songs--"The Ocean In-Between," "I Don't Want to Know," "Warning"--as contemplative as they are jangly. "Spiral" shakes things up sonically by employing a disco beat and the kinds of synthesizer washes some of you--the diehard alternative rock-history nerds--may associate with the English drone rockers Hawkwind. The pulsating music feels, in a sinisterly pleasurable way, like this condition:

With a worn-out soul
And a broken heart
Take one more sip
As a place to start
You get caught almost every time
When you make a show
You grab on but you don't know why
And you can't let go
Going down down down
In a spiral

Sweet employs a different kind of drone on the largely acoustic "Love Is Gone." The opening lines are intriguing: "Got a feeling deeper than anguish / It's only getting worse." What would such a feeling be or be like? Is this melodrama? Is it absurd? Perhaps it's theater of the absurd, because the next lines are worthy of Samuel Beckett: "You're at the end / Begin again." Ghostly, inchoate voices surround the singer, conveying his agonized state of mind.

"Wait" and "Tonight We Ride" present a telling contrast. The former harkens back to such Sweet nuggets as Girlfriend's "I've Been Waiting," and not just because the protagonist is in a holding pattern. Guitars ring, drums thump, ethereal background vocals add interest to an already appealing lead vocal. The lyrics aren't formed into the kind of concept-driven wordplay we associate with classic songwriting. Instead, they suggest a mind at work, chewing over a multidimensional dilemma:

I don't know
What I'm gonna do
I can never see
Where I wanna go
Who I wanna be
I don't know why it seems
Everything has changed
And now suddenly
You don't wanna wait
To wait for me
When I'm almost sure
That it's right to do
I just wanna know
What's inside of you

"Tonight We Ride" takes a completely different, conceptual approach: "Tonight we ride / You'll fight or hide." Who are we, what are we riding, and what's the objective? I think of a motorcycle gang, especially with the halting rhythm's suggestion of revving up. The situation remains intriguingly abstract:

Make something out of nothing here
You'll take
What you can get your mind to clear
And like the sun you will appear
A rocket with a heart of fear

If the indication of riding sounds like a command, the unresolved situation seems more like an invitation. I hesitate to call any of these lyrics poetry, but like the best poetry, they invite completion by the receiver.

Now . . .

Throughout Kimi ga Suki * Raifu, Sweet's music and delivery create the illusion that you're not quite hearing or getting the lyrics. But when you look at them, it turns out you've caught them all. They're phrased simply but, as sung, suggestive. It's as though Sweet took the impeccable songwriting of A Hard Day's Night (1964), wherein Lennon and McCartney solidified themselves in the pop/rock songwriting firmament, and swapped its unrepeatable innocence--its belief that things could work out well--

If I fell in love with you
Would you be promise to be true
And help me understand
'Cause I've been in love before
And I found that love is more
Than just holding hands

--for tragic knowingness, as in the closing track, "Through Your Eyes":

This is the aftermath
And I got just what I deserved
Proving the balance of all things should not be disturbed
And I can guess the truth but I don't want to be right
Or in my heart it might stay night forever

After all, by Sweet's time, the sixties dreams had given way to harsh realities, among them that a Beatle could be shot to death in the street outside his home by a "fan." So much for innocence. But on Kimi ga Suki * Raifu, Sweet's knowingness doesn't curdle into snarling denunciation. It just recognizes the difficulties in reaching out. Difficulties can earn rewards, however, whether in the form of love from one person or as people's appreciation of your work.

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