Modern Art, the new album by adored pop songwriter Matthew Sweet, bursts with intimacy (which may sound slightly oxymoronic). Rather than promote hooks and power, its songs rest comfortably in a world of delicate production and fragile timbres (of which Sweet’s voice is the tenderest). It simultaneously reflects on the past, comments on the present, and hopes for the future.
Sweet emerged onto the music scene in the mid 80s, and with his 1991 classic Girlfriend, he become one of the leading American power pop artists (influencing many artists in the process). His sound can best be described as a mixture of The Beach Boys, The Beatles, REM, and Big Star. For someone who’s already celebrated his 25th anniversary in the industry, it’s surprising how fresh Modern Art sounds.
Opener “Oh, Oldendaze!” is arguably the most radio friendly track (as well as the most optimistic). Sweet’s smooth voice creates some wonderful harmonies, and the production has a mid 60s rock vibe (like The Byrds). “Ivory Tower” has an aggressive vocal, similar to Neil Young in his most revolutionist mode. “A Little Death” is beautiful and haunting, and “Baltimore” oozes style and catchiness. The best track on Modern Art is the title track; its chilling combination of strings, piano, and harmonies makes it excel with poignancy.
Every track on Modern Art is enjoyable, and it’s easy to hear why Sweet is so respected and influential within the genre. His voice blends with the music perfectly, and his melodies attach themselves to the listener. It’s clear that he and his band took a lot of time to nurture and develop each song, and the result is superb collection of affective and elegant pop songs.