Matthew Sweet

Zoo Entertainment, 1991

REVIEW BY: Denise Henderson


Matthew Sweet is the guy you know got beat up after school in his teens. He probably never went to prom either and definitely wasn't the jock hero type. But as a pop icon of the late eighties and nineties, I'd say he's getting his just desserts.

Sweet's strengths as a songwriter rely heavily on his dejected persona which is consumed by love and all its pitfalls coupled with an acerbic wit and some awesome guitar hooks. Girlfriend, his 1991 release, features not only some of Sweet's best songwriting , but guest performances by killer guitarist Richard Lloyd, former post-punk guitar god of Television, and Lloyd Cole, another great popster from the UK, who put out some incredible records over the last decade. Lloyd and Cole's appearances seem appropriate given Matthew Sweet's affinity for LOUD pop music, at turns sweet and powerful. The inside jacket even advises listeners "don't be afraid to play it loud." Good advice, Matthew.

Sweet also employs two drummers on this record which works with moderate success. Ric Menck appears on several cuts, who played around my college town of Champaign-Urbana with several pop bands and later on the East Coast, and also the talented Fred Maher. While I always liked Menck's scrappy, boppy style which works great on "Looking at the Sun" and "I've Been Waiting", the more solid rockers like "Evangeline", based on First Comic's Evangeline, and "I Wanted to Tell You", benefit from Maher's more sturdy and steady backbeat.

Themes of love, betrayal and premature parting are interwoven with Sweet's appealing, boyish vocals throughout Girlfriend . I've always enjoyed his rather plaintive vocal style because there is so much other cool stuff going on instrumentally on his records that a stronger, gutsier vocal style would only detract from the music. "Girlfriend" is a great top 40 song, though it only enjoyed mediocre success on college/indie radio upon the album's release. But my favorite pop tune on the album is "I've Been Waiting" which mixes Sweet's naturally light vocals with his and Lloyd's snaking guitar work. Also noteworthy is Sweet's bass work on this tune and especially on "Evangeline" and "I Wanted to Tell You". Other than as a songwriter, I think his strengths as a bass player are largely ignored. My fav bass lines always set the right punctuation mark in a song, a musical comma or exclamation mark so to speak.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

While I'm not one to snub the great pop tunes on this record, and I'd put "I've Been Waiting", "Evangeline" and "Girlfriend" up against some of my favorites, it's the slower ballads that really appeal to me on this record. For some reason, and my friends don't call me sentimental, the pleading of "Your Sweet Voice" never fails to choke me up. As the narrator begs his companion to speak to him in her sweet voice, he nevertheless is quite aware that this is "as close as I get to love" . The title of "You Don't Love Me" says it all while our hero cries "you don't love me/you can't see how I matter in this world." OK, so even I can enjoy a depressing pop star once in awhile too, OK?

Clearly, our man is not in the habit of happy love affairs, much less a self-satisfied ego. Adding to this are the interwoven religious overtones throughout the record. I don't think this detracts from the record, but only supports Sweet's questioning of love, life and perhaps God's existence in a song like "Holy War" where Sweet complains "Cause I'm not in for killing another man,/ defending my holy land/as if there's a God who would understand." Oh happy days. Perhaps the album's dedication to the "memory of Barbara Douglas" coupled with the bust-up of Sweet's marriage at the time helped set the somewhat dour mood within some of his songs on Girlfriend.

I think another thing I find so appealing about Matthew Sweet is his true love for all things related to the sixties. The guitars, the song themes, even the affinity to his childhood memories like comic books and TV stars, is something some of us, ahem, "aging" baby boomers can relate to without feeling totally unhip. So the cast of today's trendy television shows may have brought back the bad seventies fashion and all its inherent crap, but let's face it: the sixties had cooler TV, cooler fashion (which is why designers recycle it, oh, every 3 years or so), and definitely cooler music. If you're gonna like retro, at least make it during the cool decade, kids!

From the cover photo of Tuesday Weld and the inherent 60's pop feel of this record, there is a hopeful note within Sweet's music. That hope for a better place and time was a driving force behind the counterculture movement of the sixties and may be why Sweet has so successfully made a good record with Girlfriend as his musical stance is so firmly embedded in that era. I only hope that his dreams become realized and make for a really happy record sometime in the not so distant future.

Rating: A

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© 1997 Denise Henderson and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Zoo Entertainment, and is used for informational purposes only.