Album of the Week, August 11: Girlfriend by Matthew Sweet

matthew-sweet-girlfriendMatthew Sweet was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1964. A musician from an early age, he was in a band in high school and had songs included on a local battle of the bands disc. He met R.E.M. when they played in Lincoln and maintained contact with Michael Stipe. He sent the singer a cassette of his songs; Michael shared it with his sister, Lynda, and they both encouraged Sweet to come to Athens. When he finished high school, he enrolled at the University of Georgia in Athens and started working with the Stipe siblings. He and Michael collaborated briefly as Community Trolls; he played guitar in Lynda’s band Oh-OK. Sweet and Oh-OK drummer David Pierce also formed The Buzz of Delight. On the strength of this work, he was signed to Columbia Records.

Sweet has a passion for and deep understanding of the pop of the late 60s and early 70s. He built on this throughout his early career and it formed the foundation of his first album, 1986’s Inside. That disc got decent reviews but went nowhere commercially and Columbia dropped him. He moved to A&M, releasing Earth in 1989. For both releases, he took a page from personal hero Todd Rundgren’s book and was a virtual one-man band. Sadly, Earth stiffed as well and Sweet was dropped just as he started working on his third album.

Title Girlfriend
Act Matthew Sweet
Label Zoo Release Date October 22, 1991
Producer Fred Maher and Matthew Sweet
U.S. Chart  100 U.K. Chart  n/c
  1. Divine Intervention
  2. I’ve Been Waiting
  3. Girlfriend
  4. Looking At the Sun
  5. Winona
  6. Evangeline
  7. Day For Night
  8. Thought I Knew You
  9. You Don’t Love Me
  10. I Wanted to Tell You
  11. Don’t Go
  12. Your Sweet Voice
  13. Does She Talk?
  14. Holy War
  15. Nothing Lasts

Sweet was also going through a divorce, so he took the themes of loss in his life and poured them into his music. He signed with Zoo, assembled a crack band — including Lloyd Cole, Robert Quine, Fred Maher, and Richard Lloyd — and crafted a power pop masterpiece. It was originally entitled Nothing Lasts, a fitting name for the themes of the disc, but actress Tuesday Weld would not allow her photo to be used as the cover of an album with that title.

Things kick off with Divine Intervention a frustrated rocker that wonders if there is a caring power in the universe. It’s an apt opener for the album, and Sweet is in fine voice. Stronger than anything from his first two albums, it serves notice that the musician has come into his own. The beautiful I’ve Been Waiting is up next, a hopeful ballad. The one-two punch of frustration, one bitter and one optimistic, is delightful.

The title track, ironically, also went through a name change. Originally called Good Friend, it was retitled after too many listeners misheard it. It’s a good look at the need for support, romantic or otherwise. Looking At the Sun is a sad, painful song of loss. A soaring pop tune filled with regret, it’s a Sweet masterpiece.

The next two songs are a pair of tributes. Winona is a love song to actress Winona Ryder. Sweet crafts the obsession for celebrity with tenderness, creating a wonderful ache. Evangeline is a tribute to the comic book heroine, “a sexy killer vigilante nun.” It’s an energetic ode that is compelling and just tongue in cheek enough. The pair of pop culture references show off Sweet’s knowledge and interests nicely as well. As another pop nod, Evangeline is followed by the sound of a needle lifting off a vinyl LP, harkening back to the music of Sweet’s youth.

Day For Night finds Sweet reflecting on his own part in ended relationships. With resignation, he owns his failures and moves on. Thought I Knew You is the other side of the coin an angry romp through a lover’s betrayal. It features some fine acoustic guitar work and is one of the most compelling songs on the album. You Don’t Love Me takes the theme to a quieter, more tragic place. With a nice bit of pedal steel, it’s the most country inflected track and that works perfectly, allowing the song to weep without wallowing. Regret returns for I Wanted to Tell You, a touching tune that once again acknowledges it takes two to make or break a relationship. Obsession features in Don’t Go a plea not to let “my love drive you away.” These five songs form a single piece of work, a perfect pop tapestry about love and loss.

Your Sweet Voice is a beautiful love song, with layered harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Boys. It serves as the end of “side two” with another needle lift sound effect. That makes the final three songs serve as something of a bonus disc, a fitting treatment for both Does She Talk? and Holy War. These two are harder rocking songs that have much more to do with the world at large than the rest of the disc. They work nicely and hint at Sweet’s future sonic explorations. Nothing Lasts, the former title track, is an aching acknowledgment. Over a simple guitar figure, Sweet is in perfect voice as he notes the transience of even the most important things. It’s the perfect end to a beautiful journey.

FURTHER LISTENING: Girlfriend was very successful, both in sales and acclaim. It has been a major influence on the resurgence of power pop and on the 90s alternative rock scene. It also primed Matthew Sweet’s career. He’s released eight more solo discs; the best are his Girlfriend follow-ups, the harder rocking Altered Beast and the aptly titled pop of 100% Fun. He has also collaborated with fellow power pop historian Susanna Hoffs (as Sid & Susie) on two nice covers albums.


About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

One Response to Album of the Week, August 11: Girlfriend by Matthew Sweet

  1. Thanks again Robert for such a great review. Hard to believe Girlfriend is over 20 years old now, it still sounds fresh and better than ever.

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