When applied to pop musicians, the term “big in Japan” tends to be pejorative, as if Japanese fans were less discriminating than those in the rest of the world. The only way to dispel the condescension inherent in the term is by example.
Matthew Sweet commands a loyal following in Japan; perhaps not as large as his cult in the U.S., but more intense, which isn’t surprising. Credited with launching the power-pop revival with his 1991 album, “Girlfriend,” Sweet makes music that represents everything Japanese people love about Western pop: clear-ringing melodies, clear ringing sentiments and a youthful voice. Sweet’s star has descended in the States as power pop morphed into punk pop, but his following in Japan remains strong, partly because he has never taken it for granted.
Sweet returns the love with “Kimi ga Suki * Life,” which he is releasing only in Japan. As he explains in the effusive liner notes, the songs “were not pulled from demos,” but were all written in a week “with my love of Japan in mind” and recorded in his house, which he says he’s never done before. The trio of supporting musicians — Velvet Crush’s Ric Menck on drums; Greg Leisz and Television’s Richard Lloyd on guitars — re-creates the lineup that made “Girlfriend” one of the most influential records of the last decade. The sloppy interplay and less-than-sterling production quality smudges Sweet’s characteristically pristine melodies, but that seems to be the point since he says he was after something “unique and spontaneous.”
It doesn’t necessarily sound like a formula for success, but the album is consistently exciting. Sweet made fine records in the ’90s, but none displayed this kind of focus from start to finish. It’s as if the task of entertaining a specific group of people, as opposed to throwing something out to the world, was itself inspiring. Sweet’s fans outside Japan will have to shell out the extra cash for a copy of “Kimi,” but it makes total sense that he’s given the best of himself to a corner of the world that never doubted he had it in him.
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