CATALOG CRAWL: SWEET, Part 3 (1979-1982)

As the ’70s drew to a close, Sweet was experiencing diminishing returns as a band. Longtime lead singer Brian Connolly was on the ropes due to alcoholism and a growing estrangement from the rest of the band. Their aggressive push for success in America drew to a close: despite the occasional hit single and plenty of touring, the group could never establish themselves as a reliable presence on the singles or albums charts. They would notch up their final American release in 1980 and their last record for Polydor in Europe was treated like a contractual obligation rather than something the label took seriously.

However, that doesn’t mean the band’s work from this time should be ignored. This installment of Catalog Crawl for Sweet shows that they were still full of ideas and a surprising sense of daring for their genre. The three albums represented here show the group taking their pop-friendly rock sound through an intriguing array of genre explorations – prog rock, new wave, AOR, even a dash of synth-pop – and creating a number of quirky yet catchy hybrids in the process. A sense of adventure and a diverse palate is required to enjoy these albums but, as the following capsule coverage reveals, they have plenty of offer.

CUT ABOVE THE REST (1979): Despite Connolly’s departure, Priest and Scott do a capable if less distinctive job taking over the lead vocals. In some respects, this continues the “continental pop with slight prog elements” vibe of Level Headed: “Call Me” is playful pomp-pop in the vein of City Boy with saucy lyrics about an escort and “Big Apple Waltz” is a smoochy soft rock ballad. However, the remainder is rockier and quirkier than its predecessor: pocket-size hard rock opera “Discophony” is a skewering of the disco scene with a synth fantasia midsection, “Dorian Gray” is an odd but catchy AOR/boogie hybrid and “Mother Earth” is a fascinatingly schizoid piece that mixes a hard rock chorus, soft rock verses with unexpectedly horny lyrics and a progressive cosmic synths instrumental break. Other highlights include the heavy rock with harmonies of “Play All Night,” their heaviest number since Off The Record, and the way compact charmer “Eye Games” mixes acoustic guitars and lush harmonies. The result has a cultish appeal for the band’s more adventurous fans.

WATER’S EDGE (1980): Sweet attempts to play the game a little here, working with an outside producer (Pip Williams) for the first time since Desolation Boulevard, paring down/refocusing their sound for the ’80s and even recording a single-friendly tune written by other songwriters with “Sixties Man.”  Said song is a bit odd for a single, mixing a pomp-goes-synthpop sound with a weird hippie nostalgia lyric, but it sets the tone for the concise songcraft here. Tunes like “Tell The Truth” and “Water’s Edge” streamline the group’s grandiose AOR, ditching instrumental passages and frills for a kind of arena rock shot through with new wave-ish touches. It’s also interesting to see how songs like “Getting In The Mood For Love” and “At Midnight” incorporate a power-pop edge that dovetails nicely with their vocal harmonies. The most interesting surprise here is a pair of songs penned by touring guitarist Ray McRiner: “Too Much Talking” is a pounding pop-rocker with an insidious sing-along chorus and “Give The Lady Some Respect” is a hook-laden tune with acoustic touches that should’ve been a hit.

IDENTITY CRISIS (1982): the closer for Sweet’s original era seemed cursed. Management conned the band into surrendering rough mixes and didn’t put them out until after their breakup, releasing it only in Mexico and Canada. The result is much better than the label’s bad-faith burial would suggest, offering a series of stripped-down rockers exploring various early ’80s styles. There’s more than a little new wave in “Two Into One” and “It Makes Me Wonder,” both utilizing arrangements full of angular twists and staccato riffs plus quirky harmonies at chorus time. Elsewhere, the grinding sleazy licks of “New Shoes” and “Hey Mama” offer a pre-echo of the glammy hard rock that would soon pour out of Los Angeles and a caffeinated, riffed-up take on the blues boom standard “I Wish You Would” sounds like something that could’ve been waxed by one of the poppier NWOBHM bands. The straightforward trio-style arrangements and the group’s always on-point harmonies unify the different styles and the result never sounds under-produced despite the dodgy nature of its release. A minor gem worth tracking down.

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