Popdose Flashback ’91: Matthew Sweet, “Girlfriend”

So here was Matthew Sweet, who seemed like a cat who’d been kicking around for a long time and might kick around forever without ever busting out big. He was a Downtown cat: hanging out at the Bottom Line, playing the Knitting Factory, cutting sides with the Golden Palominos. He had a reputation as a rock-solid songwriter and all-around nice guy, but let’s face it — cats like that are ten a penny, downtown. Certainly there was nothing to suggest that he would ever be famous beyond the level of a Peter Blegvad, or a Holy Modal Rounders. He was kinda weird-looking, for one thing, with a big square Midwestern head and an unflattering Dutch Boy haircut, and his voice was kind of thin and weedy. And let’s be real: he wasn’t getting any younger.

So it was as an underdog that Sweet released his third album, Girlfriend, twenty years ago this week. His first two records had tanked, and he’d already been dropped by one label, so there weren’t a lot of expectations. Maybe it wasn’t quite the end of the road for Matthew Sweet, but he was definitely getting to the point where he could see the signs for his exit ramp. And then you started to hear “I’ve Been Waiting” (download) all over the radio. Not in heavy rotation, or anything, but you heard it around. Because it was a nice tune, and it fit into a lot of demographics. The chorus was tuneful enough for pop radio, and the guitar solo was rockin’ enough for rock FM, and Sweet was old enough for the triple-A stations but obscure enough for college radio. It hit, if you’ll excuse a pun, the sweet spot.

And so “I’ve Been Waiting” simmered along for a couple of months, and it made you smile to hear it; not super-exciting but certainly pleasant, in a way that made you want to dust off your old R.E.M. albums. And Girlfriend charted and did okay for a while.

And then the title track was released as a single, and shit got real.

“Girlfriend” did crack heavy rotation, and this time it was rock radio leading the charge. It’s not hard to hear why. Sweet delivers a commanding vocal and a smartly ambiguous/sinister lyric, but the primary appeal is rhythmic; funky is not a word one would usually apply to Sweet’s brand of pop-rock, but it’s the only word that fits here. The drums are loud and live, with an Al Jackson-style breakdown in the middle, and the rhythm guitar is all about the right hand. With the stacked harmonies and the waves of feedback, it sounds like the Beach Boys mugging the JBs in the alley behind CBGB. Or something.

It was the lead guitars that got the attention at the time, and rightly so. Perhaps sensing his own underdog status, and the make-or-break quality it lends to the album, Sweet applies the same principle when assembling his backup band, stocking the ranks with New Wave backbenchers — figures from important groups who were, fairly or not, taken for granted at the time. The guitar work on Girlfriend comes mostly from Richard Lloyd, a.k.a. The Guy From Television Who Wasn’t Tom Verlaine, and Ivan Julian, a.k.a. The Guy From The Voidoids Who Wasn’t Robert Quine. (Quine himself pitches in here and there, making Girlfriend something of a Voidoids mini-reunion.) Out of the shadows of their more famous bandmates, they play as if their lives depended on it. Lloyd, in particular, simply burns; he wails like a man uncaged, determined to make his statement before they lock him up again.

The joy and release and pent-up frustration of the solos are of one voice with the lyrics. Because Girlfriend is a breakup album, conceived and recorded in the aftermath of Sweet’s divorce. His music had always been a shotgun wedding of sugary power pop with miserable lyrics, and while later albums would tilt overmuch towards the latter (sample titles: “The Ugly Truth,” “Sick of Myself,” “Someone to Pull the Trigger”), Girlfriend strikes a balance of heartbreak and hope. There’s anger, sure, but it’s cathartic — Sweet is in a mood to rebuild, rather than wallow.

Along the way, in his videos and visuals, Sweet mapped out the concerns of the burgeoning hipster subculture: Japanese comics and cartoons, thrift-store fashion, old videogames, Vanishing Point, Sixties glamour (that’s Tuesday Weld on Girlfriend’s cover), Big Star, the French New Wave, horn-rimmed glasses… and, perhaps surprisingly, the Nu Atheism: Though most of the record concerns itself with inappropriate love, Sweet manages to slip in a couple of passing pops at religion, hinting at his own troubled relationship with belief in “Divine Intervention” and “Holy War,” and lamenting on “Evangeline” that the only man his baby trusts is the Almighty.

“Evangeline” also points up one of Girlfriend’s problems: it’s a promising idea for a song, but it never connects emotionally, remaining nothing more than a genre exercise due to Sweet’s overreliance on Stupid Songwriter Tricks — self-consciously tricky bits of wordplay and construction that sometimes elevate the material and are sometimes simply too clever by half. On “Evangeline,” Sweet trots out the classic trope of rhyming “God above” with “fits like a glove,” then draws attention to the conceit by never actually rhyming either with “love.” It’s meant to be subversive, but it feels forced. The demos, live cuts, and outtakes included with the deluxe reissue of Girlfriend charts Sweet’s deployment (and in some cases abandonment) of various schematics and strategies as he worked the songs to completion. An early version of “Girlfriend,” (download) for instance, is saddled with a hokey half-time blues interlude that damn near ruins the song.

This is the kind of thing that makes me rethink Matthew Sweet’s self-loathing stance. Whether or not he is his own worst enemy, the success of Girlfriend and beyond finds him learning to stay out of his own way.

  • Anonymous

    Nice write-up of an all-time favorite, Jack.  “Stupid Songwriter Tricks” really hit home.  Ouch.

  • Anonymous

    You mention “Girlfriend,” and the first thing that comes to mind is the video. I forgot that he used anime for “I’m Still Waiting,” but “Girlfriend” was the gem of this album. The problem with Sweet’s recording history is that no other album even comes close to having the mainstream appeal of this album, and I think that confused would-be longtime fans.

  • http://twitter.com/MattSpringer Matt Springer

    How is rhyming “God above” with “fits like a glove” a “trope”? Where has it been done before? I’m honestly asking. Great write-up. 

  • http://jackfear.blogspot.com Jack Feerick

    Yeah, I expressed that awkwardly. The trope is not that “glove” and “God above” are used as rhymes for each other, but that both are often used as rhymes for “love.” The sentence would make more sense if it went “Sweet trots out a classic trope by rhyming” et cetera.

    Imagine that’s what it says above, if it makes you feel better.

  • Russ

    I remember the first time hearing anything from this record.  Some suburban rock station in Chicago, stuck in a traffic jam and Evangeline came on.  The lead guitar sounded like Richard Lloyd who blew me away in concert a couple years before.  When the tune’s over, the DJ comes on and says matthew sweet – evangeline- lead guitar by Richard Lloyd.  Stopped off at a record store on the way home to buy it.  And I now buy nearly every Matthew Sweet record.

  • Old_Davy

    Matthew Sweet has been a favorite of mine ever since I heard “Girlfriend” blasting out of my radio in 1991.  And although I think this album has Sweet’s best material on it (“I Wanted to Tell You” is my favorite Sweet track of all time), I think the album is very unbalanced and inconsistent.  Kind of like Sweet himself, who has admitted to having extreme bi-polar tendencies – which may explain why the happy tunes are matched with depressing and often suicidal lyrics.

    And during this period, he really looks like Matthew Gray Gubler.

  • Lawrencemiles

    If you were to define what the dream girl looked like in the early 90’s, I’d have to say the girl on the album cover.  She seemed to represent what a “girlfriend” should be like.  Wonder what happened to her?  Too me, she was as iconic as Blind Melon’s bee girl.

  • http://twitter.com/YoungClive Clive Young

    The problem with “Girlfriend” is that there’s only three good songs and you name-checked each one in your review. The rest of the album is otherwise filled with tracks that lack a hook or a pulse; they can only dream of growing up to become full-fledged songs someday. “I’ve Been Waiting” or “Girlfriend”? Heck yeah–gimmie more. Funeral dirges like “Wynonna?” You can keep ‘em.

    What was even more infuriating about the album, however, was the fact that with “Waiting” and “Girlfriend” as its radio-friendly calling cards, everyone who ponied up $16.99 for the full album was left feeling totally snookered by a classic bait-and-switch. The singles promise pure power pop, and the album serves up one airless lament written by a 16-year-old behind the 7-11 after another. Ultimately that’s probably why this album remains Sweet’s best seller, because no matter how good later singles like “Sick of Myself” were, few people would be willing to take chance on getting burned so badly twice.

  • http://jackfear.blogspot.com Jack Feerick

    Sigh. Nobody follows the links, do they?

  • JonCummings

    Wow — couldn’t disagree more with this. I love a lot of the “minor” tracks on Girlfriend, from “Looking at the Sun” to “Thought I Knew You” to “I Wanted to Tell You” to “Your Sweet Voice” to “Holy War.” Then I went out and bought the next two albums, and was profoundly disappointed that Sweet couldn’t maintain a higher standard past more than one or two songs.

  • Pophead

    Girlfriend is great but In Reverse is Sweet’s best album IMHO. The ‘classic’ LA recording style, the variety of the tunes, and the best shoulda-been-a-boy-band hit ever (Trade Places) makes this a thoroughly rewarding album. My biggest issue with Sweet’s output is that he continues to insist on putting brash cock rock songs on every album. Not his strong suit- I wish he’d stick to pop and ballads.

  • Aaron Nagler

    Clive, you’re mad. The album is just that – an album, not a collection of singles thrown together. Case in point – Evangeline. Not a single, but a brilliant album track.