Tomorrow Forever, Matthew Sweet’s fifth album of new material in this century, the first since 2011’s Modern Art and 14th overall in a recording career spanning more than three decades, is teeming with his signature sounds and ongoing preoccupations. But the expansive 17-song work—available June 16, 2017 in CD, double 180-gram-vinyl LP, CD and digital configurations via Sweet’s own newly launched Honeycomb Hideout imprint through Sony’s RED Distribution—takes these familiar elements into previously unexplored territory, reflecting profound changes in his life. Essentially, Tomorrow Forever contemplates a knotty epistemological question: Does what is real extend beyond what the consciousness can readily grasp?
In early 2014, Sweet, his wife Lisa and their cats moved from their longtime home in the Hollywood Hills to their native Nebraska. They bought a house on the outskirts of Omaha, 40 miles from Matthew’s hometown of Lincoln, where his elderly parents still lived. The 80-year-old house was spacious enough to accommodate Matthew’s high-end studio—formerly Lolina Lane, now Black Squirrel Submarine—and vast array of instruments, as well the Sweets’ collection of big-eyed art and Matthew’s pottery-making tools.
Soon after relocating to Nebraska, Matthew’s team launched a Kickstarter fund in order to crowd-fund his next album, but before he’d even gotten the project started, life happened. As he was getting acclimated to his old/new surroundings, his mother passed away, spending her difficult final days surrounded by her family. Never before had Matthew experienced the loss of someone near to him, and it stopped him in his tracks. But an extended period of grieving was followed by one of the most fruitful sustained bursts of inspiration in his prolific career.
“When I started cranking out stuff, I did as many as I needed for that time,” Matthew recalls. “Before Ric [Menck] showed up to play drums, I got 10 or 15 ideas going, and then we played those. I eventually recorded 38 songs, and all of them are as pro as the ones on the record. There are things that for one reason or another didn’t make it, but a lot of them go beyond what I wound up using. So in a way I was trying to bottle the essence of something that was even more sprawling and full of moodiness. The record is actually pretty simple compared to what went through my head while I was making it.”
With Matthew, the creative process is never calculated; ideas fly into his headspace, he grabs them as they come and takes a ride, not knowing the destination. In this flurry, they multiplied like Star Trek tribbles, eventually taking a coherent form in his mind.
Purely in terms of its guitar payload, the new album is a breathtaking Fourth of July fireworks show, with axes trading volleys from the left and right channels in old-school-stereo fashion, as Sweet breaks out a lineup of killer players, each sporting a distinct style, like a modern-day Moby Grape or Buffalo Springfield. They shine on incandescent tracks like “Trick of the Light,” the power-pop instant classic that opens the album, the bristling, Zuma-esque midtempo churner “Bittersweet” and the glorious four-guitar jangle fest “Music for Love.”
Guitarists Jason Victor (Steve Wynn & the Miracle 3, Dream Syndicate), Val McCallum (Jackson Browne), John Moremen (The Orange Peels), Gary Louris (The Jayhawks) and Paul Chastain (Velvet Crush) blaze away in various combinations alongside the rhythm section of Menck (Chastain’s partner in Velvet Crush) and Sweet on bass and guitar; from song to song, he adds keys and Mellotron to his lead vocals and backing harmonies. The Bangles’ Debbi Peterson drums on four tracks, and The Zombies’ Rod Argent brings his elegant piano touch to “Haunted,” which unfurls with a “Layla”-like majesty, and “Hello,” in which Matthew straps himself into his time capsule for another journey to and from the future.
On the second song, “Entangled,” he ruminates on the nature of time, a metaphysical notion he’s tackled throughout his discography, the rock & roll equivalent of Kurt Vonnegut’s celebrated novel Slaughterhouse Five. “Follow time as it flows both ways,” the chorus begins, “Dreaming in another direction/In universes all around/We’re meeting in another dimension/Each one unaware.” The song was inspired in part by Matthew’s monitoring of physics courses online. “‘Entanglement’ is a physics term,” he points out. “Einstein defined it as ‘spooky action at a distance.’ It’s a hard-to-understand concept, where, if you change an electron on one end, the electron it’s paired with changes on the other end. They don’t have to be in the same place. Because you do one thing on this end, you know another thing happens on that end.”
This interactive relationship could serve as a metaphor for the way Tomorrow Forever came together: Much of this interaction was done long-distance, 21st-century-style, as song files flew back and forth between Matthew and his collaborators over the Internet. After he and Menck finished a basic track, typically consisting of drums, bass, rhythm guitar and a scratch vocal, he sent it to each musician he’d asked to contribute to the song in question, with the open-ended instruction, “Play whatever you want.” When the finished part arrived, Matthew experienced the cyberspace equivalent of “Look what came in the mail today.” He then wove the part into the track, building it piece by piece, while adding his multitracked backing vocals, any additional instrumentation he felt was needed and a lead vocal—although in several cases he wound up sticking with the original scratch vocal.
As the ideas swarming in his head were coalescing into batches of songs, Matthew’s fans were coming through big time. In the end, their donations to the Kickstarter fund would enable him to optimize every aspect of the project, from the elaborate gatefold packaging featuring harlequin cover girls painted in the early ’60s by Maio from his own collection to the album mastering by Abbey Road’s Sean Magee, best known for his nuanced remastering of The Beatles’ and John Lennon’s catalogs.
“Because of the generosity of the people who contributed, I wanted to make sure that everything on the record was really good and solid,” Matthew says. “They’ve been waiting for it for a long time, and I feel like I owe it to them.”
Matthew’s reward to those donors who were originally promised a set of demos (as it turned out, he didn’t cut any) is Tomorrow’s Daughter, a 12-song LP culled from the sessions; longtime fans will draw parallels between this limited-edition satellite record, as he describes it, and the previous companion pieces Goodfriend and Son of Altered Beast. When that one arrives, 29 of the 38 songs will be in circulation.
Matthew doesn’t know where this flood of inspiration came from, but he has an inkling. “Maybe it came from being in a new place, getting to recreate my studio here,” he speculates. “Also, I feel connected to being here in a way that I haven’t felt before—the feeling of having two feet on solid ground. But having said all that, after my mother died, I couldn’t even think about writing songs or starting to record for months and months. And in the end, I’m pleased, because I feel like I do get close to dealing with my feelings about her death at certain spots on the record. So that does inform it, but at the same time it doesn’t completely overtake it being a rock & roll record, or enjoyable rather than purely depressing. I had a lot of feelings about her death, and dying, but then I just sat down and wrote a bunch of songs. Some of them are connected to emotional stuff for me, obviously, because the songs aren’t devoid of feeling.”
That’s an understatement. “Haunted” is laced with mortal dread, while “You Knew Me” digs deep into the complicated nature of blood ties, concluding with a hard-earned epiphany: “You knew me/I knew you too/Afraid of yourself/Afraid of me/Afraid of myself/Afraid of you.” The penultimate “Hello” ponders the possible existence of multiple universes and parallel dimensions, opening into the climactic “End Is Near,” which closes the album on a note of unvarnished directness and gut-punch poignancy. A thorny contemplation of the finality of life, the song burrows down to the raw nub of the human condition.
“I had a lot of different feelings, but I didn’t necessarily sit down to write a song about this feeling and that feeling,” Matthew recalls. “I just wrote batches of songs, and then it became clear what they might be about. For as long as it took to make the record, I didn’t agonize over writing, or rewrite songs; it was all quick and mysterious, like always. It’s just that I was dealing with moving for the first time in 20 years, and dealing with my mom—just the shock of it all in general was what made it take as long as it did. What I mean is, I don’t think any of it was overwrought; most everything is just the first thing anyone played.”
When an uncommonly gifted artist trusts and follows the lead of his intuition, the results can be magical. In terms of its musical density, thematic depth, emotional immediacy and sheer scale, Tomorrow Forever could be described as Matthew Sweet’s All Things Must Pass. That wasn’t the plan—there was no plan. It just turned out that way.
“Right after we moved here,” says Matthew, “I made this video for Kickstarter, and in it, if anything, I was promising myself that I was going to make a really heartfelt record.”
Bud Scoppa April 2017
LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Eleven full-lengths, four EPs, three compilations and one live album into the game, Tommy Keene is in the midst of a creative roll that, in the space of just six years, has yielded four studio albums — five, if you count 2010 career overview Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009. The rock savant’s new offering, Laugh in the Dark, is the latest in a fruitful partnership with North Carolina’s Second Motion Records label, comprises ten fresh Keene nuggets meticulously assembled over the course of six months, a period in which his “unobvious covers” record Excitement at Your Feet saw release to unanimous critical acclaim.
Laugh in the Dark, while characterized as always by Keene’s distinctive flair for melodic guitar-driven rock and brawny power pop, marks a subtle shift in the artist’s songwriting modus operandi in that unlike previously, the material is all of recent vintage. As he explains, “There were always songs left over from the last project or ideas that hadn’t been fleshed out. What I've done in the past before starting to write for a new record would be to demo a cover or resurrect an old song of mine that I liked but never made the final cut for an album. But all the songs on Laugh in the Dark were started and finished last year from April through October. I started with a completely fresh slate on this one.”
Indeed, Keene cites the experience of doing an entire album’s worth of others’ material as being key to that “fresh slate” — and possibly even opening up some creative avenues to explore. “That’s really true,” says Keene. “Somehow, making the covers album freed me up to not be so overly hypersensitive as to my influences. In fact, I didn’t even worry at all about songs, melodies, etc., that might borrow too obviously from my main muses. Hence you have a direct concoction of the Beatles meet the Who by way of Big Star, with a little Stones for good measure.”
To that end, Laugh in the Dark sounds utterly unrestricted while still remaining true to Keene’s lifelong inspirations. Opening track “Out of My Mind,” with its brash power chords and anthemic vibe, subtly conjures vintage Who, while “Last of the Twilight Girls” has a Radio City-worthy opening riff and a succinct-yet-meaty solo to remind listeners of Keene’s prowess as a lead guitarist. Likewise, the title tune’s jangly invocations and wistful choruses speak to his instincts as a pop classicist. “Go Back Home,” with its bluesy acoustic framework spiked by sleek slide guitar, suggests a marriage between Led Zeppelin III and Let It Bleed. And album closer “All Gone Away” is overtly Beatlesque, from its “Dear Prudence”-inspired melody to the psychedelic guitar/keyboard flourishes to a generally epic feel. (Watch for this one at Keene concerts as a show closer as well.)
It’s still a uniquely Keene project from start to finish, however, awash in buoyant melodies as well as introspective — and at times, dark — lyrical ruminations. “I have had some major upheavals in my life the last few years,” confesses Keene, and it’s not hard to detect echoes of those issues if one listens closely. “When I’m writing an album I look for a beginning, a middle and an end,” he continues, “not necessarily in a thematic sense, but I do try to get songs that represent where I am at the present time and hope they feel consistent.”
Keene, previously of D.C.-area combo the Razz, hit the national scene in 1982 with Strange Alliance. Then in 1984 a six-song platter of pop perfection titled Places That Are Gone (Dolphin) landed him high on the CMJ charts and atop the Village Voice Pazz & Jop EP of the Year poll. Blatantly romantic, unapologetically melodic, bittersweet but absolutely invigorating, it still stands as a powerful statement.
He made enough noise in the early ’80s to get the majors involved, leading to 1986’s Songs From the Film (Geffen) Produced by Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, the album spawned two MTV videos and spent 12 weeks on Billboard’s Top 200. The accompanying Run Now EP led to the singer as well as its title track appearing in the Anthony Michael Hall movie Out of Bounds.
For 1989’s Based on Happy Times (Geffen) Keene headed down to Ardent Studios in Memphis to record with producers John Hampton and Joe Hardy. The ironically titled disc is the darkest album in the Keene catalog, with heavier guitars, fewer jangles, and a more brooding, fatalistic outlook. Following that he took a break from recording, eventually signing with Matador for 1996’s Ten Years After and 1998’s Isolation Party. (During this period he also briefly spent time in Paul Westerberg’s touring band.) Between 2000 and 2004 he released a live disc called Showtunes (Parasol), The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down (SpinArt) and rarities/demos/unreleased-tracks collection Drowning: A Tommy Keene Miscellany (Not Lame).
Back on the road in 2004, a trek opening for Guided By Voices led to his joining Robert Pollard in ’06 as a touring member of his post-GBV band the Ascended Masters and, two years later, Boston Spaceships. Meanwhile, 2006 also saw the release of Crashing the Ether (Eleven Thirty), recorded primarily by Keene himself at home, along with Blues and Boogie Shoes, a collaboration with Pollard under the Keene Brothers moniker. An initial effort for Second Motion, 2009’s In the Late Bright, was soon joined by Tommy Keene You Hear Me: A Retrospective 1983-2009, a two-CD collection holding over 40 of his best tunes. Then in 2011 he delivered the masterful Behind the Parade, boasting emphatic hooks, irresistible refrains and vibrant, jangly melodies with a distinctly ’60s sensibility.
That in turn led to 2013’s aforementioned Excitement at Your Feet. Those who had followed Keene’s career already knew his definitive versions of Alex Chilton’s “Hey Little Child” and Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons.” Here he tackled influences ranging from the Stones, Donovan, Bee Gees and the Who to Big Star, Echo & the Bunnymen, Television and Roxy Music, but rather than choosing obvious material he opted for deep cuts and lesser-known gems.
With the arrival of Laugh in the Dark Tommy Keene offers yet more evidence that he is like an athlete rediscovering his prime. Only in this artist’s case, he never left it. Incidentally, the album title comes from a ride at an amusement park on the outskirts of his old stomping ground of Washington D.C. — the same park where the cover photo for 1984’s Places That Are Gone was shot. “See, I am consistent!” he concludes, smiling at the memory.
Keene will tour the U.S. this fall behind Laugh in the Dark. Full itinerary at http://www.tommykeene.com/tourdates.htm.