Nothing Lasts - The Music of Matthew Sweet
By Ross Thompson
Resisting all urges to make shoddy sweet and sour related jokes, the best way of summing up Matthew Sweet's music is to lift a lyric from one of his own songs. On the final track of his brilliant long-player 100% Fun, he sings that the darkest night has the strongest pull, as he has quite a knack for dealing with poignant subject matter. Never has pain been so entertaining. Released in 1995, Sweet's fifth and most easily accessible album lifts its title wholesale from Kurt Cobain's suicide note, in which the late rock star moaned that his worst crime would be to fake it and pretend that he is having one hundred percent fun. Originally a comment on the fickle nature of celebrity, in Sweet's hands this epigram, or epitaph, takes on new meaning as a tongue-in-cheek joke, for he somehow managed to forge these lovelorn songs into the perfect pop record. In a period where music was largely dominated by muddy grunge--dirge would be a better word--100% Fun bristled with a dozen short, sharp tunes full of deceptively simple harmonies and addictive guitar hooks.
Sweet's joke is largely at his own expense, a nod that his songs have never been about the cheerier side of relationships; if true love does come along, then it does so with a catch.While sounding remarkably perky, 100% Fun dutifully followed the formula that every silver lining has a cloud, for beneath the shiny, summery surface of its songs resides the same dark heart that has always been at the core of Sweet's music, up to the latest record In Reverse. Listening to his records now, as my mind flits back once again to the subject of death and loss, the music therein makes a lot of sense; its immediate beauty is undercut by a very deep sadness, a despairing belief that nothing of this world lasts. On "Not When I Need It," Sweet laments:
I can hang onto a dreamSweet's records swing between a deep longing to be loved and a suspicion that his beloved is the devil in disguise. Therefore, the ladies for whom Sweet writes these paeans are either a cure or a curse. Some may look upon this attitude as one of bitterness, but look closer--to borrow American Beauty's tagline--and Sweet's lyrics cease to be caustic and instead become desperately sad, the musical equivalent of a sigh.
Not that you could tell from the actual music, which deals out electric r- a-w-k and aching, fragile love songs in equal measures. When winsome melancholia becomes tiring, there is a welcome bout of foot-tapping coming with the next track. I first stumbled across Matthew Sweet by accident, as his third and best album Girlfriend was recorded for me onto the other side of a cassette, after another group that has since faded in comparison and who I have duly forgotten. My friend bought Girlfriend because it reminded her of someone she fancied, and since then it has come to remind me, much to my chagrin, of someone I fancied too. Listening to the album now, I hang my head in shame as I remember boyish expectations somewhat excused by naivety, curse my luck at foolhardy declarations made in the name of romance, yet somehow still feel the urge to play air guitar, a pursuit that has been outlawed in most civil countries, and rightly so.
Yet, what really saddens me about Sweet's music is his deep distrust for all things spiritual, his continuous refusal to believe that there is nothing more to life than falling in and out of love; from dust we come and to dust we shall return and in between there is nothing certain but death and taxes, to lamely paraphrase Benjamin Franklin.
Sweet tells us something that we already know, that the world is a very messed-up place, and yes this is true but I have the promise that there is some order and plan behind it all, that there is a loving force over and above all this tragedy. Yet, Sweet says sarcastically as if there is a god who would understand our stumbling about in the dark for truth. This bothers me because it is all very well and hardly anything new to bemoan love on the rocks and a fractured heart, but how should we react when an artist begins to gnaw at the very things our faith is built upon? I would hope that my lukewarm attempts at wooing will not prevent me from entering heaven, that churlish angels will not tease me for them when I do shuffle off this mortal coil, yet I do worry about how Sweet's religious doubt will affect me. His questioning of God crops up frequently on his records, alongside his own self-doubt and ability to remind me of mine, a way of thinking that is best explained by the first and last songs on the album Girlfriend.
The opening song "Divine Intervention" may be all motown harmonies and backwards guitar, but underneath broods another contentious lyric:
I do not understand my GodWhile there are those who would reject this as pure heresy--if you excuse the unintentional paradox--I would like to think that we can be more compassionate than that. Sweet is just as lost as any of us are or have been in our lifetimes, and is asking the very same questions that anyone without a faith in Christ would ask at one time or another. Admittedly, he has the ways and means of being more vocal about his objections, and therefore the Christian listener is posed a problematic riddle--can we hum along with such rejection of God's love without feeling an uneasy twinge of conscience. Crowded House once dolefully sang that God was little more than a terrible truth in the beautiful lie, an argument that Sweet seems to agree with. As he sings on "Nothing Lasts":
If I could locate a god aboveIronically, Sweet may be telling the truth, that nothing in this world does last, the question is how one should react to this terrible news. Of course, as Christians we should believe that the answer is found by turning to God and embracing his love, to find something that will last through this life and into the next. My problem is that I find it hard to believe that there is no meaning to it all, that when we die we are little more than food for the worms. It really must take more faith to believe that we are all destined for the junk pile rather than for a better place, one that will gladly welcome us all if we only say yes.
I guess my problem is that I cannot accept that anyone could believe in nothing, and therefore Sweet's arguments do not convince me perhaps as much as they should. I do not profess to know anything about Sweet's standing on religious matters, but I do suspect that he would not sing about them so much if they meant nothing to him; a case of protesting too much, if you like. I cannot remember who it was who said this--I confess my ignorance lest I be accused of plagiarism--but it is a profound observation:
The most terrifying thing about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent, but if we come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we can supply our own light.
Perversely, there have been low times in my faith when I do not feel the urge to pray and keep in touch with God, but listening to Matthew Sweet's music cheers me up and makes me more interested in dropping the big man above a line. In a world of darkness, everyone is looking to supply their own light, whether it be through sex, drugs, rock and roll or hopefully to people like us, through God. My opinion on whether we should listen to 'secular' music--as that seems to be the root problem here--is that these artists are asking questions, just as we once did, and if they did not ask, then how would they find the answers. I guess it all depends on how they ask, but I have to admit that listening to music by artists like Matthew Sweet reminds me of just how lost people are without God, reminds me that I am fortunate to have found Christianity when I could just as easily have lost it. To use one of Sweet's album titles, I am an altered beast of sorts; where once I was lost, now I am found, that over the years I have slowly changed my attitude and pet sins, yet there are a few that I still stubbornly hang onto.
Yet that should never let me lose my compassion for those who still need the love of Christ, to dismiss artists as being irreverent or indeed irrelevant. I know we should be careful about what we listen to, yet at the same time we should not be deaf to the cries of others--thankfully, in the case of Matthew Sweet, these cries sound a lot nicer when they have a good tune.