I was continuing my undergraduate work at UCLA in the fall of 1991, where I was serving as Music Director at their student-run radio station. It was particularly exciting time, as the “alternative” sound college radio had long championed was making some amazing mainstream inroads. Just as Nirvana’s Nevermind was beginning its ground-breaking run, I stumbled upon another record that completely caught me off-guard and has only grown in my estimation: Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend.
I had heard Sweet’s name before, but his previous records hadn’t made an impact with me. But within the first few moments of the first track, I knew this would be a keeper. He had been a part of the Athens, GA music scene in the mid-80s, even collaborating with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe on a project, and there is a definite influence heard throughout Girlfriend, especially on tracks like “I’ve Been Waiting” & “Thought I Knew You”. But Sweet eventually moved to NYC and connected with a few key players there who would be instrumental in developing the sound that makes this record so great.
Guitarists Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine lend their estimable talents to the album – sharp, crisp, yet fluid lead guitar lines that echo their legendary work in their previous bands, Television and Richard Hell’s Voidoids respectively. Drummer and co-producer Fred Maher had previously worked, along with Quine, on a number of diverse projects, ranging from Lou Reed to Scritti Politti. Secondary drummer Ric Menck brought his power-pop credentials to the table, while pedal steel guitarist-to-the-stars Greg Leisz and fellow singer/songwriter Lloyd Cole (whose recent solo albums Sweet, Maher & Quine had all played on as well) contribute significant cameos.
The album’s hit single, “Girlfriend”, is anchored by Quine’s howling guitar, while Maher pounds away in a rock-steady but unflashy way and Sweet unleashes vocal hooks that sound strangely timeless (perhaps the nod to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” helps that aspect). Its anime-influenced video also demonstrated his good sense of iconography, further exemplified by naming a song after late-80s “It Girl” Winona Ryder and the use of a 50s-era shot of Tuesday Weld for an album cover.
And while too many records are declared “Beatlesque,” the album’s aforementioned opener, “Divine Intervention,” genuinely qualifies — with a tight production, backwards tape tricks, a slicing guitar solo, an utterly terrifying (to radio DJs at least) false ending, and uber-hot multi-tracked backing vocals, making for a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on Abbey Road, as do a number of other tracks.
Unabashedly romantic and full of classically-structured love songs (something seemingly out of step with the times, dominated by the cynical sounds of grunge and the heady lyricism of the Native Tongues hip-hop community), Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend was a revelation and one that sticks with me. Listening to it today still makes me want to jam with the late Robert Quine, to go out on a date with Tuesday Weld, and sit around and watch Japanese cartoons with Matthew Sweet.
ERIC J. LAWRENCE