I remember hearing “Girlfriend” for the first time, way back in 1991. It was an undeniably strong pop song, with a chugging rhythm and a vocal hook that sounded like it came straight from the gods. But throughout the song, above that solid power-pop bedrock, someone was absolutely losing their mind on lead guitar. At its gentlest, that guitar simply bobbed and weaved and darted around, but when it reached critical mass, it sounded like someone was stretching a length of electrified barbed wire to the breaking point, only to let it go so it could backlash and whip around.
That someone turned out to be Robert Quine (also known for work with Richard Hell & Voivoids, and Lou Reed, and who died in 2004), and as much as Girlfriend represents Sweet’s coming-out party, it also stands as one of Quine’s shining moments. Sweet’s relationship with Quine and Richard Lloyd (Television) would define his sound for years; in top form, Quine and Lloyd’s interplay was so sympathetic that it resembled nothing less than a needly, New Wave-informed version of the Rolling Stones.
To hear tales of Girlfriend‘s birth, though, it’s a wonder the album ever saw the light of day. In 1991, Sweet was a largely unknown artist with poor record sales and an underdeveloped sound. Even after 1989’s Earth established Sweet’s fateful relationship with Quine and Lloyd, there was little indication that Sweet was brewing something like Girlfriend.
Besides, alternative radio was only a blip on the radar at the time, so even after Girlfriend‘s raucous mix of power-pop precision and frayed guitar emotion made it to tape, there weren’t many buyers for what Sweet was offering. Sweet’s rules for creating the album—no reverb, no effects, and no synthesizers—probably didn’t help, since they further separated Girlfriend from the dominant sound of the time. Label after label rejected Girlfriend, and it was only after some in-house persistence and shenanigans on the part of some true believers at Zoo Records that the album got its chance.
Then, to top things off, Sweet had to change the album’s original title, Nothing Lasts, when Tuesday Weld’s camp balked at allowing a vintage picture of Welds in her younger days to be used as cover art on an album with such a loaded name.
So after all that, Girlfriend hit the streets and took off, aided in no small part by a video that was many peoples’ first exposure to anime. Now, 15 years later, the album doesn’t sound a bit dated, and it’s hard to believe that Sweet was ever anything but a fully-realized power-pop master.
But as anyone who’s heard even a few aspiring power-pop bands can tell you, meticulous craftsmanship gets you only so far. Girlfriend, for all of Sweet’s growing talent, was also the product of major upheavals in Sweet’s life: a divorce and a subsequent new romance. You could argue that Sweet’s music, harrowing though the personal turmoil must have been for Sweet himself, needed just such a kick in the pants. Prior to Girlfriend, Sweet was appropriately named, as his songs could rot your teeth. By contrast, Girlfriend bristled with excitement, confusion, and anger.
In that environment, Girlfriend‘s guitar-heavy mix perfectly represented Sweet’s new direction. Songs like “Girlfriend”, “I’ve Been Waiting”, and “Your Sweet Voice” reflected Sweet’s newfound optimism, while songs like “Thought I Knew You” (in Sweet’s own words, “a song of bitterness and betrayal”), “You Don’t Love Me”, and “Don’t Go” recalled the darkness of his heartbreak. Still others reflected the cloudy emotions in between. A few songs like “Divine Intervention” and “Holy War” allowed Sweet to address bigger issues, but the album’s bread and butter are the shadowlands at either end of relationships.
The first disc of this expanded anniversary edition basically gives us the Japanese version of Girlfriend, which sports three bonus tracks: demos of “Good Friend”, which would become “Girlfriend”; “Superdeformed”, which would show up in live form on the Son of Altered Beast EP; and “Teenage Female”, a portrait of a needy fan.
The real draw, though, is Disc 2, which contains the much bootlegged Goodfriend promo that went out to DJs and other industry insiders upon Girlfriend‘s release. A mixture of live tracks, acoustic demos, and BBC sessions, it’s always stood pretty well on its own. Two live versions of “Girlfriend” might seem like a bit much, but their stylistic differences—one flashing a burlesque shimmy while the other bristles with a ragged, punkish edge—highlight Sweet’s fondness for pushing the edges of his own material. As a whole, the live tracks adopt a slight Crazy Horse vibe, a feeling that’s underscored even further by a version of “Cortez the Killer” with Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls guesting. The mixture of sources has always kept the Goodfriend disc from feeling like a mere blueprint for Girlfriend; rather, it often feels like an alternate version.
It’s remarkable how strong Girlfriend remains to this day, sounding like it could have come out yesterday. Along with its follow-up, 1993’s even stronger and darker Altered Beast, Girlfriend marked Sweet’s emergence as one of mainstream alternative rock’s more vibrant artists. It’s an album that struck a chord on its release, and one that should have the same effect on any unsuspecting new listeners. Well worthy of the deluxe treatment.
Matthew Sweet - Girlfriend