20 Years Ago: Matthew Sweet’s ‘Altered Beast’ Album Released
We gather Matthew Sweet is one of those guys who goes searching for “the big find” at the local record store on a lazy Sunday afternoon, geeking out with the bespectacled know-it-all behind the counter about the greats — the Byrds, the Beatles, Dylan, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Big Star, etc. Sweet is like John Cusack’s ‘High Fidelity’ character, only he’s a professional musician, not a “professional appreciator.”
‘Altered Beast,’ his fourth album, which turns 20 today, is a study in the influences he’s digested over the years as one of rock music’s premiere songsmiths. And some of his heroes even appear on the album. Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, Jody Stephens of Big Star and Robert Quine of the Voidoids — who would later show up on the ‘Beast’ follow-up ‘100% Fun,’ whose cover shot features a 10-year-old Sweet listening to a record — all show up.
The album dropped in 1993, two years after Sweet’s breakthrough hit, ‘Girlfriend,’ which makes it a quasi-sophomore effort. There was probably considerable expectation for a second ‘Girlfriend,’ and to some extent, ‘Beast’ is a strong follow-up. The album was seemingly sequenced as if it were a vinyl offering, with seven tracks on the A-side, an ‘Intro’ to the flipside (a quote from the infamous X-rated Malcolm McDowell flick ‘Caligula’), and then the B-side, beginning with a rockier rehashing of ‘The Ugly Truth,’ one of the album’s singles. There are hints of alternative country (a nascent genre at the time), as well as nods to Neil Young & Crazy Horse (‘Falling’), the Byrds (‘Life Without You’) and Big Star (‘Time Capsule’), who invited him to sit in for a reunion show. (He declined the offer.)
What may be most interesting about ‘Altered Beast’ is how little has been written about it over the years. This may be because of its lack of critical cheerleaders, and reviewers at the time accused Sweet of writing an uninspired, patchy group of songs. When asked by about the record in a 1995 Spin interview, Sweet said he didn’t think ‘Altered Beast’ was “as weird as its reputation.” He also talked about how the success of ‘Girlfriend’ had driven him to drink and, to some degree, over-analyze himself.
The critical backlash strikes us as odd, because the album has an edge that sets it apart from Sweet’s other discs. Alternately angry (‘Someone to Pull the Trigger’) and filled with self-loathing (‘Dinosaur Act’), ‘Altered Beast’ may have turned off listeners craving more of the fun, poppy Sweet they’d become accustomed to — the one that would show up two years later on ‘100% Fun.’
Only time will tell if more (digital) ink is spilled on this record, which reached No. 75 on the Billboard 200, besting ‘Girlfriend’ by a full 25 places. (Both ‘100% Fun’ and its follow-up, ‘Blue Sky On Mars,’ fared better, cresting at No. 65 and 66, respectively.) It certainly deserves more than just a handful of question marks.