25 Years Ago: Matthew Sweet Makes a Modern Power Pop Classic With ‘Girlfriend’
Matthew Sweet had been kicking around for almost a decade before he finally got his break with 1991's Girlfriend. From the start, he was attracted to the poppy side of college rock. It just took him a few albums to refine the perfect sound he laid down on his breakthrough record.
Before Girlfriend -- or, more specifically, its title track -- made Sweet a modern-rock radio regular, he was part of the exploding Athens scene of the early '80s as a member of Oh-OK, which included Michael Stipe's sister Lynda. By the end of the decade he was a solo artist with two albums to his name.
But it's Girlfriend -- which came out on Oct. 22, 1991 -- that finally clicked with music fans. The title song climbed all the way to No. 4 on Billboard's Modern Rock chart, but the entire hour-long, 15-track album unspools like a classic power-pop record, weaving muscular rockers between brooding ballads and mid-tempo hook monsters.
More so than many records that debuted in the Nevermind and post-Nevermind eras, Girlfriend comes together as a singular piece guided by a dark undercurrent. No surprise there, since Sweet wrote and recorded the album following his divorce in 1990. It's a breakup album every bit as gloomy and tuneful as predecessors like Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear. And much of the time, it's every bit as good.
Sweet doesn't get all weepy about it, though. Instead, he rages. And hard at times. His band -- made up of Lou Reed sidemen Richard Quine and Fred Maher, along with a couple of New York City punk vets, Television's Richard Lloyd and Richard Hell and the Voidoid's Ivan Julian -- provide the backbone of the record.
On the opening "Divine Intervention" -- the first song released to radio, it stalled at No. 23 on the Modern Rock chart -- they blanket themselves in a sheet of feedback and distortion. It's one of Girlfriend's toughest songs, as Sweet sets up the album's theme: "One day my life is filled with joy, and then we find we disagree," he sings.
It drifts into power pop territory from there: "I've Been Waiting," "Evangeline," "I Wanted to Tell You." Even the detours -- like the pedal steel-assisted ballad "Winona" and the closing summation statement "Nothing Lasts," another ballad -- are fueled by hooks as big as Sweet's native Nebraska. Acoustic guitars rarely sounded this forceful during alt-rock's pivotal period.
Girlfriend gave Sweet his moment. And it gave him momentum. It made it to No. 100 on the album chart, not a bad showing for an LP released just a month after Nevermind changed alternative acts' fortunes over the next few years, as well as for an artist whose first two records never even approached the Top 200.
Altered Beast, from 1993, and 1995's 100% Fun followed Girlfriend's template and made Sweet one of the most reliable artists of the era. A quarter-century after its release, his greatest album remains his most defining one, and one of the best power pop records of the past 50 years.
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