Having recorded three definitive modern power-pop albums with 1991’s classic Girlfriend and its two follow-ups, Altered Beast and 100% Fun, in one of the most extraordinary runs of the ‘90s, Matthew Sweet set an awfully high bar for himself. So the singer-songwriter has spent much of this decade sidestepping expectations that he’d come up with another essential power-pop record with a series of comparatively mellow albums, such as 2004’s Living Things and his side projects with the Thorns and Susana Hoffs. That his recent output has still been of high quality makes it a bit problematic to call Sunshine Lies a return to form, but that’s nonetheless what the album feels like.
That Sunshine Lies serves as something of a formal reunion of his ‘90s-era band (other than 2003’s Japan-only Kimi Ga Suki, guitarist Richard Lloyd hasn’t played on one of Sweet’s records since 100% Fun) plays a significant role in that feeling: Sweet’s production here foregrounds the massive guitar hooks (courtesy of Lloyd, Ivan Julian, Greg Leisz and Sweet himself), giving the album a punch that carries some heavy follow-through. The ragged distortion that made “Girlfriend” and “Sick of Myself” natural fits on alternative radio playlists a decade ago, however, has been replaced by flourishes of psychedelia and more subtle production tricks, including backward looping and multiple overdubbed harmonies. In other words, Sweet has put his knowledge of vintage ‘60s pop to excellent use in expanding his own signature sound.
Sweet’s songwriting here is also some of his sharpest in quite some time. While there’s nothing quite as dark or neurotic as the material that made his ‘90s albums so memorable, Sweet can still imbue even a casual throwaway line with a caustic, self-deprecating wit. “Burn Through Love,” for instance, opens with, “I’m warning you now/You should know and how/That I burn through love/As easy as you adding two plus two.” But much of the album’s imagery, as on “Byrdgirl” and the title track (which boasts a lovely harmony vocal from Hoffs), is drawn heavily from nature, which gives the album a greater sense of coherence. The album works just as well as a collection of terrific standalone singles, though, since Sweet keeps the focus of Sunshine Lies on some of the most compelling pop hooks he’s written in years.