Altered Beast at 25

Looking back at Matthew Sweet’s monster of a masterpiece

Altered Beast orange cover

Matthew Sweet has never made a bad record.

To the contrary, most of those that he’s produced are extraordinary. Originally one of the new godfathers of the reemerging art of power pop, he made a series of excellent albums throughout the mid ‘80s and into the early ‘90s, beginning with Inside (1986) and continuing through Earth (1987) and culminating with Girlfriend (1991), the record that’s generally considered his overall masterpiece.

Nevertheless, but the time Altered Beast arrived in July 1993, Sweet was clearly on a roll. Although the album generally rocked harder than its predecessors, the melodic quotient was still intact, complete with his trademark cooing harmonies, the reverberating refrains and the essential hooks that kept listeners coming back for every catchy chorus. “Time Capsule,” “Reaching Out” and “Someone To Pull the Trigger” are obvious highlights, although a spoken sample called “Intro,” which finds Malcolm McDowell rallying the masses in a scene the film “Caligula,” provides an unexpected addition to the proceedings as well.

Sweet always surrounded himself with exceptional players, but for Altered Beast, the support team was especially impressive, given the fact that it included cameos from guitarists Richard Lloyd, Ivan Julian, and Robert Quine, longtime associate Greg Leisz on pedal steel, the late Nicky Hopkins on piano, fiddler Byron Berline, and a stellar set of drummers that included Pete Thomas of the Attractions, Jody Stephens of Big Star, Ric Menck of Velvet Crush, Fred Maher of Scritti Politti and Lou Reed’s touring band, and no less an icon than Mick Fleetwood of…well, you know this one…

The latter was likely recruited by Mac producer Richard Dashut, who co-helmed the effort with Sweet himself.

When originally released, the album cover came in a variety of hues, not entirely surprising considering the fact that the album title was taken from an arcade game that was popular at the time. Aa he told it to SPIN back in 1995, Sweet defined its meaning as “whatever is inside you that someday might explode and you don’t know it’s there.” To the outside observer that could seem a bit ominous, like an aneurysm or heart attack waiting to happen. Sweet claimed it was all connected to the game. At any rate, the premise proved strong enough to spawn a sequel of sorts, Son of Altered Beast, a seven song mini album containing a remix of “Devil With the Green Eyes,” a studio outtake called “Ultraswuede,” and five live tracks, including two Altered Beast selections, “Someone to Pull the Trigger” and “Knowing People.”  An expanded version of the Altered Beast album is supposedly being readied for release at the end of August via Intervention Records.

I’m a person who never looks back,” Sweet once told me. “I’m always looking forward to the next thing. Once I’ve completed something to my liking, I kind of drift away from it and need to move on. It’s never enough for me. So I think that’s what keeps it going. So much time passes and you move on, but it doesn’t really feel like that’s happening until you’re at a point where we are right now where we’re looking back and going, my God, it’s been this long. I feel really really lucky to be an artist who’s survived enough to put out some records and able to do some interviews and play shows and all that. To me as a teenager, that would have been unfathomable success. So to be able to hang in here and still put out music… I feel like I can still do it. I don’t feel like I’m any less able to do it at all.”

That’s evident in his new album, Tomorrow’s Daughter, a companion piece to last year’s Tomorrow Forever. Yet another stellar selection of songs, it proves that a quarter century on from Altered Beast, Sweet hasn’t altered his tack. The continuum is complete, and for those tracing the trajectory, Altered Beast remains an essential element in a progression that shows no sign of stopping.

And that indeed is a beast of an accomplishment.

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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