Matthew Sweet Girlfriend

Matthew Sweet Channeled Divorce Into the Power Pop Hall of Fame With ‘Girlfriend’

Thirty years old and still virtually unsurpassed, Matthew Sweet’s breakup album Girlfriend rescued his career and breathed new life into the ailing power-pop genre.

Matthew Sweet
Zoo Entertainment
22 October 1991

The year 1991 was astounding for new albums; it was also a year that didn’t quite know what it wanted to be. Was it the “Year of Grunge” (Nevermind), the “Year of Trip Hop” (Blue Lines), the “Year of Shoegaze” (Loveless), or the “Year of Rap” (The Low End Theory)? One thing’s for sure: No one ever said that it was the “Year of Power Pop“. Yet, maybe they should have.

Picture Matthew Sweet in 1991. He’s made two poorly received albums for two different record labels —1986’s Inside for Columbia Records and 1989’s Earth for A&M—and his marriage of six years has broken up. An application for a position at Toys “R” Us sits invitingly on the table. After some soul searching, he decides to roll the dice again by assembling a killer band and making the record he should have completed five years previously. Is it hubris? Desperation? Self-delusion? The jury is still out, but Sweet undeniably took elements of those three negatives, added 15 taut, fat-free, top-drawer tunes, and recorded Girlfriend. Thirty years later, it remains almost unequaled in the genre that it’s come to define.

Sweet’s two previous LPs suffered from the curse of the 1980s (perfunctory drum machines tick away, and synthesized sounds cover everything like gloopy chocolate sauce). Beneath the layers of technology are some good songs, but few people had the patience or the archaeological skills to dig for them. Thankfully, Girlfriend turned Sweet’s previous approach completely upside-down, emphasizing his strong but plaintive voice and some thunderous guitars. The outcome was a collection that owed little to whatever was modern.

Much of what makes Girlfriend so durable stems from the musicians that Sweet chose. Flipping through his Filofax, he called up Television vocalist/guitarist Richard Lloyd and session ace and former Voidoid guitarist Robert Quine. Pedal steel virtuoso Greg Leisz also joined them, as did drummers Fred Maher and Ric Menck (plus guitarist Lloyd Cole, who was living in New York and starting his solo career). Sweet wisely encouraged his stellar cohorts to sound exactly like themselves, and they all turn in stunning performances (especially Quine and Lloyd). This decision, combined with a significant leap forward in Sweet’s songwriting, allowed the LP to soar far above his two previous efforts.

Sweet’s first two collections featured stylized portraits of himself on the cover. For Girlfriend, however, he chose an enigmatic image of Tuesday Weld from the late fifties, further removing the record from its contemporary time. Weld did throw a spanner in the works, though, by objecting to the original LP title: Nothing Lasts. Eventually, though, the sequence was renamed after its first single. “Girlfriend” (the track) is a neat summation of the entire project. Sweet slashes through the guitar chords while Maher provides solid, unfussy percussion, and Quine adds his unique, fauvist guitar approach. The vocals and guitars are mixed loudly, and harmony vocals add detail to a robust and insistent tune. It even gave him a Top 5 single on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart.

Finally, Sweet had found his voice.

Aurally, Girlfriend is as dry as a bone. Reverb is off-limits, and the mixing is straight out of the “Beatles in Stereo” book. Instruments and voices are hard-panned to the left or right, resulting in the listener being placed in the center of the performances. The studio credo was “first take = best take”, which added to the songs’ raw feel.  Both Sweet and Quine were working through their demons during the sessions; specifically, Sweet was coping with the breakdown of his marriage and the pressure on him to remain a working musician, whereas Quine was dealing with numerous mental health issues. Both musicians channeled their angst into the recordings, ensuring that Sweet’s perfectly conceived pop compositions had a harsh, jagged edge. Yin and Yang.

The tracks are as varied as a truck stop jukebox, but they all hang together beautifully. For instance, “Girlfriend”, “Holy War”, and “Does She Talk?” are tight and aggressive rockers. On the other hand, “Nothing Lasts” and “Winona” are plaintive ballads, just as “I Wanted to Tell You” and “I’ve Been Waiting” are definitive examples of power-pop. Sweet combines all the elements of that often-derided genre in the latter piece, creating something that can hold its head high next to “September Gurls” and “I Feel Fine”. From Sweet’s ringing arpeggios to Richard Lloyd’s short but stinging solo (via a vocal melody that’s so perfect and timeless), it’ll have you fruitlessly working through your record collection looking for its antecedents. It’s become the benchmark for guitar pop.

One of the essential songs on Girlfriend is “You Don’t Love Me”, which is essentially Sweet’s version of “Go Your Own Way”. Here, however, Lindsay Buckingham’s righteous indignation has been replaced with a dignified acceptance, as Sweet sings: “Then I guess it’s okay / I think it’s okay / If you go away / ‘Cause you don’t love me”. Leisz piles on the pathos with some heartbreaking pedal steel embellishments, and Quine adds a touching and tasteful solo. Plus, Sweet keeps his emotions in check and floats a gorgeous, measured vocal line over the piece. It’s a masterclass in taste and restraint. There’s no hand wringing and garment rending; there’s just a heartfelt statement of the facts.

Girlfriend pretty much saved Sweet’s career. Whether he intended to somehow harness the resurgence of popularity in guitar-based alternative rock or whether it was just fortunate happenstance, we may never know. (Or, the canny Sweet will never reveal.) The LP judiciously combined grungy angst and a raw approach with Sweet’s Brill Building ear for a bombproof pop melody. Of course, they tangle together beautifully. When the Pixies Frank Black placed his legendary “band seeks bassist into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary, please – no chops” ad in 1986, he accidentally wrote Sweet’s 1990’s manifesto. Apart from the bit about “no chops”, of course. The regimented pulse of a drum box and the uber digital accuracy of a sequencer mostly dominated the preceding decade. Girlfriend said goodbye to all that in spectacular style, making it the power-pop Ziggy Stardust.

Sweet has never again reached the precise level of commercial success that Girlfriend gave him. His follow-up LP, 1993’s Altered Beast, was criticized for having all the elements for which Girlfriend was praised. This was a situation that Lloyd, who played guitar on both, knew only too well from how Television’s second LP, 1978’s Adventure, was compared with their debut, Marquee Moon. Sweet continues to write and record, though, and earlier this year, he released album #15, Catspaw. He’s never quite muscled his way into the mainstream, but his body of work is outstanding. It’s consistently good and always interesting.

The shadow of Sweet’s 1991 pop gem looms large, covering the Posies, Fountains of Wayne, Jimmy Eat World, Weezer, and a host of other stylistic successors. Currently, artists like North Carolina’s Chris Church are working within Sweet’s template to create music as tuneful as it is aggressive. Unfortunately, balancing those elements is a skill that does not come easily. (If you hit the fuzz box too often, you get bad heavy metal; if you don’t hit it enough, you’re left with something colorless and bland.) Good power-pop should be informed by the Beatles, but not enslaved by their legacy, right? Girlfriend captured everything that made Revolver such a brilliant collection of popular music and present it to an audience who were nonetheless appreciative despite being sick of that sort of thing. It was downright irresistible.

The month after Girlfriend came out, Teenage Fanclub released Bandwagonesque, an album loaded with unruly but brilliant pop. Maybe 1991 was the “Year of Power Pop” after all.

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