Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Matthew Sweet released two widely acclaimed albums before getting the listening public’s attention. Despite critical approval of his first two solo efforts, 1986’s Inside and 1989’s Earth, Sweet had anything but a smooth path to success. Beset by personal crises—a divorce from his wife of six years and a flood in his Princeton, New Jersey, home that destroyed his guitars and records—he was also forced to maneuver through record-company politics; although Inside received such accolades as three-and-a-half stars from Rolling Stone and Earth was singled out as a “Platter dJour” by Spin, Columbia Records chose not to distribute the latter, and when Sweet’s A&R representative left A&M Records, which had picked up Earth, that label dropped him. “The year before [Girlfriend] came out was really hard,” Sweet told Musician, though this hardship apparently offered considerable inspiration to the struggling artist. “I thought I might have to find another career or get a job at the 7-Eleven,” he admitted. But when Zoo Entertainment offered Sweet a deal to produce and distribute Girlfriend, in 1990, Sony, which had acquired Columbia, was smart enough to re-release Inside, and Sweet’s popularity took off.
Matthew Sweet was born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he worked in a music store and played in various new-wave cover bands during high school. He graduated in 1983 and moved to Athens, Georgia, for summer school. Briefly attending the University of Georgia, he quickly became part of the Athens music scene, joining the band Oh-OK and then forming Buzz of Delight; both bands released EPs on Atlanta’s DB Records in the mid-1980s. Sweet then moved to New York, encouraged by Columbia Records’ Steve Ralbovsky, who pushed for the release of Sweet’s first solo disc, Inside. In 1987 Sweet shouldered bass duties for the Golden Palominos, touring with the loose assemblage of artists and helping to record their 1987 album Blast of Silence, for which he co-wrote and sang “Something Becomes Nothing.” Two years later, Sweet recorded his second album, Earth, which again provoked a response from critics though not from the general listener. Girlfriend was his breakthrough.
The appeal of this third record was widespread; though Girlfriend fit most comfortably under the rubric of pop, critics could hear a considerable rock and roll influence. Gene Santoro of The Nation felt that the work recalled Bob Dylan, the Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, and even the Beatles. Rolling Stone’s Paul Evans added Neil Young and Crazy Horse to the list, and Michael
For the Record…
Born October 6, 1964, in Lincoln, NE; married c. 1984 (divorced c. 1990). Education: Attended the University of Georgia.
Worked in music store and played with various bands during high school; played guitar with band Oh-OK, Athens, GA, which released Furthermore What, DB Records, 1984; formed band Buzz of Delight, Athens, which released Soundcastles, DB Records, 1984; signed with Columbia Records and released Inside, 1986; toured with the Golden Palominos, 1987, Lloyd Cole, c. 1990, and the Indigo Girls, 1992. Co-produced Velvet Crush’s In the Presence of Greatness, Ringers Lactate/Caroline, 1992.
Addresses: Home —Princeton, NJ. Record Company —Zoo Entertainment, 6363 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90028.
Azerrad, also of Rolling Stone, heard echoes of the legendary 1970s guitar band Television.
Indeed, on Girlfriend Sweet was accompanied by the guitars of Richard Lloyd, originally of Television, and Robert Quine, who has played with Lou Reed and Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Ric Menck, of Velvet Crush, whose album was co-produced by Sweet and recorded in his living room, played drums, singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole contributed acoustic guitar, and Greg Leisz of k. d. lang’s country-rockin’ Reclines lent his talents on pedal steel. Sweet had worked with Lloyd and Quine on Earth, during which, he reported in Pulse!, “I got just a taste of what they were capable of and I sort of regretted that there wasn’t more room that wasn’t plotted out in advance.” Girlfriend’s live studio approach provided that room.
Critics who detected the influence of rock and roll appreciated what Musician’s Jon Young called the “tougher edge” of Girlfriend, due in part to the emphasis on guitars. Nation contributor Santoro testified, “The lunatic guitars... thrash and burn with deliciously vicious postpunk edges,” and Rolling Stone’s Azerrad remarked that “the heavily autobiographic Girlfriend plays Sweet’s impeccable pop sense off noisy, passionate guitar work.” Pulse! contributor Marc Weidenbaum concluded that Girlfriend actually “would have been a rock’n’roll record were it not for the marvelous, sugary haze of [Sweet’s] vocals.” But Sweet himself perhaps best summed up the album’s “unproduced” sound. Of his first two releases, he told Rolling Stone, “There was something missing for me.” He explained to Weidenbaum that Earth “was just the culmination of this plan we’d had for a long time: to try and make a record that had really good drum programming that seemed real.” When he discovered the loose and largely undiluted noise of Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix, Sweet decided to forgo his drum machine altogether in favor of the genuine article to make “a really raw, totally blatant, in-your-face kind of record.”
Still, the strains of rock that weave themselves through Girlfriend do not preclude the presence of pop. Musician’s Young, for one, referred appreciatively to the “luscious pure pop” found throughout. In fact, some critics have discerned a unique balance in Sweet’s music between pop and rock. Attested Rolling Stone’s Evans, “This is popcraft raised to the level of artistry—a rock and roll valentine that delivers subtle wisdom with an exhilarating kick.”
While exploring Sweet’s distinctive pop-rock stylings, critics have also focused on the upheavals in Sweet’s life that they see translated into both the lyrics and music of Girlfriend. Some have viewed the album as an emotional musical autobiography. Comparing Sweet to his pop forbears, Evans wrote, “While quivering at times like a teenager gripped by a fearsome crush, he’s actually a knowing lover—the spirit of his songs suggest a grown-up Everly Brothers, straining still to be starry-eyed but savvy enough to have survived love’s disenchantments.” In Spin, Thorn Jurek declared, “Matthew Sweet is giving American music something that it has been known to lack: honesty. Not since [pop cult favorite] Big Star have we heard songs so lyrically fragile (to the point of embarrassment) that are also so sharp, lean, and powerful musically.” Like Big Star’s Alex Chilton, who inspired a generation of songwriters, Sweet is a romantic. “Anyone who has ever been in love to the point of obsession,” added Jurek, “will feel that songs like ’Looking at the Sun’ and ’Your Sweet Voice’ were written just for them.” Perhaps Evans pegged Sweet best, though, stating, “[With] virtually all of [Girlfriend’s] fifteen tunes offering joyous or yearning or bittersweet statements about romance, [the album] is the breathless testimony of a fool for love.”
Sweet, too, acknowledges the impact of his emotional life on his musical life. Of his separation and divorce, he said in Rolling Stone, “It was the most terrible experience of my life.” Of the timing of his next bout with love, he explained he was “needless to say, really on edge when I went in to make this record.” Cutting Girlfriend, Sweet insisted, was a key aspect of his emotional recovery. “It’s funny,” he remarked in Rolling Stone, “how the album ended up showing everything I needed to feel. Everything I needed as an antidote is there.” But Sweet expressed his desire that the release act as a tonic to others as well, telling Spin’s Jurek, “I wanted to make a record that people could listen to in personal terms. It comes out of my life to a point, but it offers the listeners a chance to interject themselves, because these are experiences we all share.”
Of his chosen profession, Sweet averred modestly in Spin, “I don’t call it craft. That would be lying. I just write the songs and hopefully they’re honest enough from the outset not to even need crafting.” And with an edgy bit of good humor, Sweet noted to Elysa Gardner in Entertainment Weekly, “People say, This is your big breakup record—will you still be able to write good songs?’ I’m sure I’ll be just as depressed at some other point in my life.”
It is this disarming candor—both musical and personal—that has seduced so many critics and, with Girlfriend, fans. Azerrad concluded admiringly of Sweet’s method on that record, “[He] and his friend and producer Fred Maher traded perfectionism for spontaneity.... Sweet found his fullest expression in [the album’s] bluesy base and loose, jam-session feel. Alternating blistering rockers with lyrical acoustic numbers, the album documents both the torment of a disintegrating relationship and the giddy rush of a new one.” Sweet believes that honesty will, in fact, be the key to his continued success. He has even expressed thankfulness for the ebb and flow of his moods. “Some days I’m happy,” he admitted in Musician, “others I’m weighed down and crushed. I’ve always regarded it as a valuable asset that I don’t feel good about myself. I’ll keep striving to do better.”
(With Oh-OK)Furthermore What, DB Records, 1984.
(With Buzz of Delight)Soundcastles, DB Records, 1984.
Inside, Columbia, 1986, reissued, Sony, 1990.
(With the Golden Palominos), Blast of Silence (includes “Something Becomes Nothing”), Celluloid Records, 1987.
Earth, A&M, 1989.
(Contributor) Lloyd Cole, Lloyd Cole, Capitol, 1990.
Girlfriend (includes “Looking at the Sun” and “Your Sweet Voice”), Zoo Entertainment, 1991.
(Contributor) Lloyd Cole, Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe, Capitol, 1991.
(Contributor)Buffy the Vampire Slayer (soundtrack; “Silent City”), Columbia, 1992.
(Contributor) Ultra Vivid Scene, Rev, 4AD/Columbia.
(Contributor)Yuletunes, Black Vinyl Records.
Entertainment Weekly, April 17, 1992.
Musician, February 1992.
Nation, February 3, 1992.
Pulse!, December 1991; August 1992.
Rolling Stone, November 28, 1991; June 23, 1992.
Spin, March 1992.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Zoo Entertainment press biography, 1991.
Born: Lincoln, Nebraska, 6 October 1964
Best-selling album since 1990: Girlfriend (1991)
Hit songs since 1990: "Girlfriend," "Ugly Truth," "Sick of Myself"
Matthew Sweet, pop singer, bass player, guitarist, and piano player, broke through with the highly-acclaimed album Girlfriend (1991), a tapestry of power pop radio-friendly ballads and brokenhearted love songs inspired by his crumbling first marriage.
Sweet was born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he worked in a music store and played in various New Wave cover bands during high school. He graduated in 1983 and moved to Athens, Georgia, for a brief spell before winding up in New York. After two unsuccessful albums on A&M Records, independent Zoo Records picked him up and released Girlfriend (1991), which would become a platinum-selling debut for their label. Nearly every song is a pop masterpiece, especially the classic rock and roll sound of the title cut. In "You Don't Love Me," Sweet creates a truly heartbreaking ballad, "'Cause you don't love me / You don't love me / You can't see how I matter in this world."
After the success of Girlfriend, Sweet delved into a darker period with Altered Beast (1993), a guitar-dense album that won him comparisons to Neil Young. It was not as commercially successful, but his fans stuck by him. Perhaps to combat the album's perceived somber qualities, Sweet cheekily named his next album 100% Fun (1995), which landed in many critics' Top 10 lists and reached gold status.
Sweet's most noteworthy follow-up to Girlfriend, in terms of what he achieves in songwriting, scope, and production, is In Reverse (1999). It finds Sweet fully immersing his music in a 1960s "wall of sound" technique whereby a maximum, echo-laden sound is achieved through the synthesis of many instruments. Sweet has been involved in all aspects of his albums' productions. By the time he recorded In Reverse, he knew he wanted a large, all-encompassing, echoing effect, which was achieved by employing several people to play the same instrument part simultaneously. Sweet claims that he overdubbed a lot of the songs. Four of the songs were recorded in Los Angeles' Cello Studio, with a seventeen-piece band, including horns and theremin. "I Should Never Have Let You Know," complete with soaring harmonies, tack piano, and organ, best exemplifies Sweet's homage to the 1960s "wall of sound." Though In Reverse did not succeed commercially—it peaked at number 188 on the Billboard Top 200 chart—artistically it was a serious accomplishment.
The pop music of Sweet is bittersweet both in theme and sound. Few performers so creatively and compellingly fuse the influences of classic 1960s pop with a contemporary sensibility.
Girlfriend (Zoo, 1991); Altered Beast (Zoo, 1993); 100% Fun (Zoo, 1995); Blue Sky on Mars (Zoo, 1997); In Reverse (Volcano, 1999); Time Capsule: The Best of Matthew Sweet (Volcano, 2000).