Matthew Sweet fans are of the rabidly devoted type. Ask the typical Matthew Sweet fan about their collection of his material, and they’re likely to rattle off a bunch of albums, b-sides, demo tracks, one-song radio promo singles, bootlegs, and other rare material. There are hundreds of Matthew Sweet songs that float around the Internet, each collected by his insatiable fans.
The funny part of all this is that most of these fans don’t particularly care for Matthew Sweet’s pre-Girlfriend work. Girlfriend began a period in Matthew Sweet’s career where he intertwined unwieldly guitar rock (courtesy both Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine) with gorgeous pop melodies, occasionally soft and plaintive and occasionally very rock ‘n’ roll. He’s merged influences ranging from punk to ‘70s power-pop to country-rock and new wave. Matthew Sweet could be sad or mad or glad, often in the space of a single song-and that’s why he’s become one of the most revered pop songwriters of the ‘90s.
Before Girlfriend, it was a different story. Sweet was borne out of the Athens, Georgia college scene of the early ‘80s. Pals with the likes of R.E.M. and the B-52’s, he was well-connected within the artistic community by the time of his solo 1986 debut, Inside. Working with 10 producers and a slew of guest artists, Sweet crafted an overblown major label debut that could be a case study in all that was wrong with the ‘80s. The production is so thick and overbearing on both Inside and the 1989 follow-up Earth that most of the fans that Sweet gained with the more earthy Girlfriend didn’t care for either of those first two albums.
So this brings us to the question, then, of why on earth Hip-O released this compilation. To Understand: The Early Recordings of Matthew Sweet attempts to act both as “Matthew Sweet’s Greatest Hits, Vol 1” (since he does already have a compilation covering from Girlfriend onward) and as “The Early Rarities of Matthew Sweet” and in the process just comes out as kind of confusing.
Here’s why: The 22-track To Understand features 10 songs total pulled from Sweet’s first two albums, including all four singles culled from those discs. But as a “best of” those two albums it falls short, because it includes weaker tracks like “Wind and the Sun” and “Love” instead of far better songs like “The Alcohol Talking” (which comes close to sounding like Sweet’s later material) or the frothy pop of “How Cool”. And still, even the singles from the first two of Sweet’s records weren’t hits, so its unlikely that a casual fan will pick this up even as a companion to Sweet’s later-period greatest hits. That means To Understand is really for the fans, then, which is cool and all, but if that’s the case then why include any album tracks at all—since most Matthew Sweet fans probably own them AND don’t particularly like them—and at that, why even cover this era? With all of the great, rare material that Matthew Sweet has available floating around, and with such devoted fans who haven’t been treated to a new release for three years, why didn’t Hip-O try and assemble a b-sides compilation of a more coherent collection of rarities? To say that this collection is puzzling is putting it mildly.
That said, I have personally always been a defender of both of Matthew Sweet’s earlier records, largely because I felt the production was kind of quaint and interesting in a period-piece sort of way, and small complaints aside (like how he hadn’t really found his relaxed vocal style yet) I actually felt most of the songs were up to par with his later material. For those of us who do enjoy the earlier Matthew Sweet, To Understand helps us, well, to understand just what led up to these earlier records. For example, the five tracks from Sweet’s old band Buzz of Delight that lead off the compilation are more than just curiosities; while sounding little like any of Sweet’s later work, they exhibit a strong Let’s Active and XTC influence coupled with the production tricks of mid-period Police records. These songs, particularly “Southern” and “Briar Rose” sound tense, nervy, and artful, but rarely rock or stumble on a concrete hook. They’re more than just curiosities, however, because they link Matthew Sweet more closely with the southern jangle-pop scene from which he sprang than any of his later releases (especially Inside and Earth) did. And since much of the problem with Sweet’s Inside and Earth era work is the production, the more stripped-down, low-key b-sides “To Understand”, “You Gotta Love Me”, and “Silent City” offer a more clear picture of Matthew Sweet’s creative progression from Earth to Girlfriend. There are also two Girlfriend demos of “Divine Intervention” and “Good Friend” (which is the same actual song as the Girlfriend title track), and these also illustrate the progression marvelously-like in how “Divine Intervention” features a drum machine!
To Understand also features extensive liner notes in a beautiful, full-color book, and a generally attractive package. It does its job very nicely, but the question lingers—why do this job at all? While it’s nice to have all this material, it would’ve been much, much nicer to have other material instead. So yes, of course Matthew Sweet fans will want this—but To Understand still remains an ultimately puzzling and bizarre collection, and somewhat of a wasted opportunity given the sheer volume of brilliant, not merely “okay”, material that Matthew Sweet has stored in his vaults.