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.
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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.
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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.