Picks and Pans Review: Altered Beast

updated 07/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Matthew Sweet

Maybe it's coincidence, or maybe it's destiny, but Sweet has a tendency to make, um, sweet music. No matter what this 28-year-old singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist does, he cannot disguise the poppy melodies at the heart of his work or the light, ethereal quality of his voice.

But on his third solo album, 1991's Girlfriend, Sweet met sour head-on—and came away with a clear winner. With biting guitars, courtesy of new-wave fretmasters Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine, and a recording that seemed straight out of a well-swept garage, Sweet effectively counterbalanced his catchiness. The alternative power-pop of Girlfriend made him an overnight sensation five years after his solo career had begun.

Now, as an encore, Sweet has toughened up even more. Quine and Lloyd are back on Altered Beast, and at times their playing seems about to snap out of control. The mix is dense, with none of the clarity of Girlfriend. And Sweet has written lyrics that are littered with double meanings, vague symbols, unanswerable metaphysical questions. The album, named after a video game that involves changing identities, is tinged with resentment: toward rejecting lovers, the pressure of new fame, hard life.

Some of this is a bit much. And yet Sweet connects anyway with a snappy, syncopated melody ("Dinosaur Act"), a gorgeous harmony ("The Ugly Truth"), a plaintive vocal ("Someone to Pull the Trigger"). Even if he constructs songs like mazes—some with no solutions—he makes them fun to explore. Puzzlement has never been so hummable. (Zoo)

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