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The middle offering in Sweet’s trilogy of 90s power-pop albums, Altered Beast has long been considered the weirdest, most aggressive of the bunch. No surprise, as the record even takes its name from a popular arcade game of the era—one set in a mystical Greece in which a centurion transforms into a mighty violent wolf-like creature on a quest for good. Despite its pop-culture pedigree, the work sometimes gets overlooked given it lacks the breakthrough hits of 1991’s Girlfriend and exuberance of 1995’s 100% Fun. Still, many of Sweet’s key touchstones are here—indeed, the power-pop owes a debt to Big Star and Cheap Trick. The former’s drummer Jody Stephens makes a guest appearance, as does Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood. Produced by Richard Dashut, known for helming a string of albums for Fleetwood Mac, including Rumours, Altered Beast targets a larger-than-life 70s rock sheen when it comes to tone. And yet Sweet’s songs give the set a slightly dark edge. Cue guitarists Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd. Known for their inventive, punk-inspired nature, they help give the lush material a coarse attitude.
Of all of Sweet’s works, Altered Beast most clearly reflects the grunge era in which it was released. Check the unhinged studio effects purposely left on the opening “Dinosaur Act,” which immediately launches with a wildly vicious solo. It’s hard, virtuosic, and a little mean, ultimately using self-deprecation as fuel for confidence and anger. Or dig deep on “Someone to Pull the Trigger,” projecting an underlying folk-meets-country strum—think the Byrds or a 70s-era singer/songwriter like Jackson Browne—beefed up with fuzzed-out electric guitars. The background harmonies are swoon-worthy, but the arrangement vacillates beauty and 90s-style brooding. Thus, the swirl of emotions constantly remain in a tug-o-war between Sweet’s naturally hopeful tendencies and, well, and an utter feeling of hopelessness. Yes, “Someone to Pull the Trigger” alludes to suicide. And yet Sweet’s upper-register voice and attraction to melodies means things never turn depressing. It all brings to mind the better films of Kevin Smith, perhaps Chasing Amy, which attempts to deal with the pure excitement of infatuation and heartbreak of it destroying a friendship.
“You don’t want to die,” Matthew Sweet sings on “Ugly Truth,” “but the living gets you down.” All the contradictions and gloriousness of Altered Beast appear on the tune, given two renditions on the album—one full of rootsy layers and the other a bit leaner, faster, and unhinged. The whole record takes the form of a split-personality affair, one Sweet has talked about over the years as being influenced by the pressures and stress that followed the success of Girlfriend. Such traits also grant the collection a slightly unpredictable feel. While “Ugly Truth,” especially the version on side one of Intervention Records’ loving reissue, alludes to 70s-era grandeur in its production, it still seems bracing, even years later, when Sweet drops a curse word during the opening verse.
Bitterness arises again in “Time Capsule,” but what a beautiful tune, with the jangly, retro pop approach masking the dead-and-buried nature of the lyrics. Then there’s “Knowing People,” unique in Sweet’s catalog, as it feels bluesy in the way the needle-thin albeit razor-sharp guitar lines entangle everything liked barbed wire. Stay away, Sweet seems to suggest, even as the dexterity of the playing lures us closer.
Intervention Records’ reissue provides six bonus cuts not on the album, making for a total of 21 songs. What’s remarkable is how the outtakes and B-sides fit so well with the overall tone of the finished album, especially the twisted balled “Born in Sin,” which blends old-fashioned country heartbreak with the kind of thick, creepy. bass-heavy notes often heard throughout David Lynch works. “Ultrasuede,” like “Born in the Sin,” initially appeared on the “Ugly Truth” single, and chases a brighter aura that could have provided a moment of relief amid the intense Altered Beast song cycle.
But “Superdeformed,” originally buried on an alt-rock compilation and possessing one of Sweet’s fiercest-ever vocal performances, should have been a hit. It can be a read a few ways—of a narrator justifying terrible behavior, or Sweet just getting at the dualities of the album (and theAltered Beast title in general). The song is fascinatingly odd and heavy, with backing vocals clashing with Sweet’s lead singing and the tone constantly shifting. “Speed of Light” and “Thing” lean towards the romantic, while “Bovine Connection” qualifies as flirty, aggressive alt-rock honky-tonk. As a whole, Altered Beast isn’t so much a collection of clashing styles as it is a work about embracing the monster within—and, in turn, all the ambiguities and paradoxes that come with doing so.
Unless you are the world’s most-obsessed Sweet fan or a masochist, there’s no good reason to opt for—let alone own—an original pressing. By giving the 52 minutes of original-album material the groove space it’s always deserved across three vinyl sides, the music finally enjoys room to breathe and registers a fullness, depth, and vivacity entirely lacking from the thin, constrained-sounding Zoo/Classic Records LP. Altered Beast quite literally sounds like a new record. And while not the nth-degree of audiophile standards, it even has palpable bass. Who knew?
To put the sonic enhancements in another perspective, imagine hearing a band with a rolled-up piece of paper placed next to your ear and walls located to the sides of and behind you. Now, remove that paper, bring the group much closer, and remove the barriers. Intervention’s microprocessor-factory-clean pressing—complete with a high-gloss, thick, Stoughton gatefold sleeve—renders that much of a difference.
*VinylReviews.com is owned and operated by Intervention Records’ Founder Shane Buettner.
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