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When Matthew Sweet Took a Darker Turn on ‘Altered Beast’

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After false starts on two major labels in the mid-to-late ’80s, Matthew Sweet found an audience on alternative radio and MTV with 1991’s Girlfriend, a perfect power pop collection that blended the Byrds, the BeatlesNeil Young & Crazy Horse and Big Star. He returned on July 13, 1993 with Altered Beast. 

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, with the b-side beginning with an a quote from the infamous X-rated Malcolm McDowell flick Caligula followed by a rockier rehashing of “The Ugly Truth,” one of the album’s singles. There are hints of alt-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, which he declined.

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 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.

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