BY MIKE WALSH Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend was released in late 1991, just four weeks after Nevermind, but it took another six or eight months of word-of-mouth recommendations before it became a hit. That was probably because very few people had heard of Sweet prior to Girlfriend. He grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, and moved to Athens, GA, in the early 80s to attend college at the University of Georgia and quickly became part of the vaunted music scene there. Sweet played in bands such as Oh-OK and Buzz of Delight, got married, and made a few recordings with people like Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. Based on those early recordings, Sweet received a major label record deal. He released two albums in the latter half of the 1980s, Inside and Earth, both of which garnered little attention or sales. Sweet played most of the instruments on those releases and used drum machines and synthesizers extensively on them.
By 1989, Sweet was living in Princeton, NJ, and still had a deal with A&M for another record. He was working on a new batch of songs when his wife left him. “I was married really young, and my marriage was breaking up,” he says about that time. “My ex-wife moved, and I was left in Princeton on my own. It was a really dark period.” In addition to the emotional upheaval, Sweet realized that another poor-selling record could mean the end of his music career. So he and producer/drummer Fred Maher laid out some rules for the new record. “I had this law that we couldn’t have any reverb on the record,” said Sweet. “It had to be really dry because I like that sound on some of the Beatles records.”
Sweet and Maher banned not only reverb, but all effects as well as synthesizers and drum machines. And they did not allow themselves any more that 24 tracks for recordings. They weren’t going to weigh the recording down with excess. Except for a piano on “Divine Intervention” (which I can’t even hear). Girlfriend has no instrumentation other than Sweet’s vocals, rhythm and lead guitars, bass, and drums. No other keyboards, no strings, horns, samples, or backup singers. Not a single tambourine tap or hand clap. “When I stopped programming drums, I just kind of went off the deep end into the feeling of music,” Sweet said. “The more organic it was, the more right it felt to me.”
Sweet also hired three wonderful guitarists: Richard Lloyd of Television; Robert Quine, known for his playing with the Richard Hell, Lou Reed, John Zorn, Eno, Tom Waits, and others; and noted pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz. They started recording the new songs during the summer of 1990 at a studio in midtown Manhattan, and the results were anything but dry. If you’re reading this, you probably know that the sound on Girlfriend is bright, clean, and has an immediacy that jumps out of the speakers.
Although the record may sound like a live recording, it’s not. It was constructed, instrument by instrument, layer by layer. The guitar leads, for example, are composed of pieces from several takes. There’s nothing groundbreaking style-wise about Girlfriend. It’s just a bunch of love songs with straight-forward melody lines, infectious hooks, beautiful vocal harmonies, a simple mix, and some great guitar playing. The ideas in the songs express straightforward, raw emotion, the kind that rock music is so good at communicating. It does not define an attitude, as do other alt-rock classics from that time, like Nevermind and Slanted and Enchanted. It’s something of a throwback to the styles of the 60s and early 70s, like early Neil Young and Revolver-era Beatles, yet the record sounds as fresh today as it did 20 years ago.
By the time Sweet and his friends started recording Girlfriend, Sweet had a new girlfriend, whom he would eventually marry. That might explain why the record contains two distinct sets of songs: generally upbeat songs pining for an object of affection (his new girlfriend?) and songs of heartbreak and loss (presumably about his divorce). Most of the pining songs are in the beginning of Girlfriend, such as “I’ve Been Waiting,” “Girlfriend,” “Winona,” and “Evangeline.” Most of these songs became moderate hits, with the title cut actually charting and eventually appearing on Guitar Hero II. Sweet has described the title cut as a “pickup song.”
It doesn’t get much more complicated lyrics-wise than, “I want to love somebody / I hear you need somebody to love.” However, it does feature a driving rhythm and several amazing guitar parts by Quine. The last line also adds a dark, foreboding element, as Sweet repeats, “And I’m never gonna set you free.” In “Winona,” the narrator pines for the object of his affection to “be my little movie star.” But his desires seem unrealistic as he admits, “It’s true that I don’t really know you, and I’m alone in this world.” This song is named after Winona Ryder but is not about her. The title was suggested by Sweet’s friend Llyod Cole, who also plays rhythm guitar on Girlfriend.
“Evangeline” is a light-hearted, medium-paced romp. A comic book character yearns for “some kind of angel” from “another planet” named Evangeline. But the subtext of the impossibility of attaining true love surfaces, as the character sings, “Too bad she only thinks about the Lord above.” For the most part, these songs avoid the true content of Girlfriend. Sweet and his narrator are having fun. They’re flirting, acting as if everything is okay—but it’s not. The real content of Girlfriend are the songs of racking heartbreak, predominantly in the middle and end of the record. That’s where Sweet reveals his emotional scars.
It starts with “Looking at the Sun,” in which he sings about “waiting for her to appear”, but he learns that he was “looking for somebody you will never be.” And when this mysterious character finally gets close, “The damage was already done / Looking at the sun burned my eyes out / and I’m blind now.” The recriminations pour out in “I Thought I Knew You,” and the bitterness is all-consuming.
I thought I knew you, but I wasn’t even close.
I had my heart set on little more than a ghost…
It took me years to figure out that there was nothing I could show to you.
“You Don’t Love Me” starts with soft acoustic guitar strumming with pedal steel in the background as Sweet sings, “What a beautiful morning.” As the song progresses, you grasp the stunning sarcasm of that line, since it is the morning the object of his affection breaks up with him. Sweet sings in resignation, “It’s okay if you go away / ‘Cause you don’t love me / You can’t see how I matter in this world.” Sweet said that “You Don’t Love Me” is “a really personal song … because it encapsulated a really unhappy feeling for me.” Uh, yeah.
In “Don’t Go,” which starts softly over a bed of Quine quitar feedback, the character resorts to near-panicked begging:
Don’t let my love drive you away
There’s so much I have left to stay
Don’t bring my darkness to the day
The intensity builds, dominated by layers of guitars, minor chords, and a blistering Quine solo, as the narrator becomes even more despondent:
Don’t make me have to say good-bye
Cuz I need to look you in the eye
“Your Sweet Voice” is a soft acoustic lullaby accented by Greg Leisz’s sweet pedal steel and a tasteful guitar line by Quine. The narrator has been through an emotional wringer, seems to have given up on love, and just wants a maternal force to hold him as he falls asleep. “It’s as close as I get to love,” Sweet sings.
The guitar parts by Quine and Lloyd are like a second voice on Girlfriend. With a healthy edge of distortion, they represent the character’s feelings of emotional turmoil as much as Sweet’s vocals. That distortion, particularly in Quine’s inspired playing, is the character’s desperation. Sweet encouraged the guitar players to be inventive and to cut loose. “You can let people go crazy,” Sweet says of the guitarists, “and their best art would come then.”
Guitar leads, which are such a big part of Girlfriend, weren’t exactly in style in the early 90s. Punk and new wave had just about eliminated guitar leads. But Sweet and his gang just didn’t care if what they were doing was in style. Quine’s leads in particular feel like they are often on the verge of a breakdown, just like the narrator. Bud Scoppa, A&R guy and rock critic, calls Quine’s playing on Girlfriend “skronky cacophony.” Richard Lloyd calls the guitar playing on Girlfriend “a good blend of melody and insanity.” Leisz’s pedal steel guitar playing on “Winona,” “Your Sweet Voice,” and “You Don’t Love Me” is a revelation as well. It showed that pedal steel need not be relegated to country music. Leisz’s contributions to those songs come off as a smooth, sweeping abstractions of heartbreak.
During Sweet’s show at the World Café in Wilmington in late October, he explained that Girlfriend was supposed to end after “Your Sweet Voice,” the 12th song. But he and his buddies had recorded another three songs that they liked, so they added them to the end of the CD—after 30 seconds of recorded record skipping. I was relieved to hear this because “Does She Talk” and “Holy War,” two of the three added songs, don’t fit the concept of Girlfriend and introduce different characters. But the closer “Nothing Lasts” fits the concept so well that Sweet initially wanted to title the release after it.
“Nothing Lasts” is a soft, slow acoustic piece with a gorgeous melody. The emotion is raw, the outlook bleak and resigned. Sweet achingly sings, “I have tried to hang onto the past / But I couldn’t keep my grasp / ‘Cause nothing lasts.” We’re left with the knowledge that the narrator is doomed to repeat this cycle of love and loss. Sweet has warned listeners to not read too much into his lyrics, but it’s impossible to believe that Sweet could write “Nothing Lasts” without having lived those feelings.
So who is the object of all this affection? The lyrics suggest that she’s a goddess, beautiful and intelligent but unknowable. She may be a bit condescending, which drives our narrator and those guitars, to the brink of desperation. In other words, she’s someone just like the 16-year-old Tuesday Weld on the cover. Sweet says that he used the picture of Weld, which was taken in the late ‘50s, on the cover because it had “just the right mix of innocence and knowing.”
Weld is dressed up and made up like an adult in the photo. She playfully pulls the fur collar of her coat up to her ears and stares at the camera with a slight smile and knowing eyes. And what does this goddess know? She knows about the lust in your heart, and she smiles because she knows that you, like Sweet and the narrator of Girlfriend, want to own her but will never succeed. And that knowing look may not be a coincidence. Weld, a child model and actress, reportedly had a nervous breakdown by age nine, was an alcoholic by age twelve, and attempted suicide not long after. She had affairs with older men as a teenager, so by the time that photo was taken, Weld knew a lot.
Sweet’s next two releases, Altered Beast and 100% Fun, are great records as well, but not quite as focused and powerful. With Girlfriend, he was at his most desperate and vulnerable and at his peak artistically. People make jokes about suffering enough to create great art, but maybe there’s something to that after all. An expanded and remastered version of Girlfriend was released in 2006, and if you’re a fan of the Matthew Sweet, you should own it.
The original release appears on the first disk, which also includes three bonus songs: an early, mellower version of the title cut named “Goodfriend” and two other outtakes. These three songs were originally released on an EP in 1992. Disk 2, which was sold as a fan club-only release in the early 90s, contains demos, home recordings, and live recordings of most of the songs on Girlfriend. These recordings are almost as good as the originals. This disk also includes a live cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” with the Indigo Girls (of all people), a cover of John Lennon’s “Isolation,” and an early recording of “Someone to Pull the Trigger” (which later appeared on Altered Beast).
During the recording of Girlfriend, A&M was sold to Polygram, and Sweet’s supporters at the label left the company. So it probably wasn’t a big surprise to Sweet when A&M, in their wisdom, rejected the record. Sweet shopped to recording to numerous labels with little success. “I didn’t think the record was even going to come out,” he said. But a couple guys at Zoo Entertainment, a relatively new label at that time, heard it, loved it, and convinced the label to put it out. Within a year, Girlfriend would sell nearly a half million copies.
The quotations in this article come from interviews Matthew Sweet conducted in the 1990s and from the liner notes from the Legacy Edition of Girlfriend, which were written by Bud Scoppa.