Moving through crowded Edinburgh with a friend, we talked as fast as we walked, trying to make it to Patisserie Valerie for dinner. I hadn’t seen Roy in a while and we were discussing our favourite things which were writing, music, and Doctor Who. At some point, we got our subjects tangled up. “Matthew Sweet’s got something new coming out,” said Roy. I immediately perked up. “It won’t be as good as Girlfriend,” I replied, immediately becoming that fan who always throws out someone’s best work whenever they have new work on the horizon, that pain in the arse fan. I remember Roy looked at me before he quickly worked out that our Matthew Sweets were different people with the same name. His Matthew Sweet, the one he was thinking about during our conversation, was the well known English writer and journalist. Also, a Who fan. He had released some CDs with MP3 downloads also available online. My Matthew Sweet, who doesn’t actually belong to me of course, also released some CDs with MP3 downloads also available online. Girlfriend, one of the best power pop album of the ’90s, wasn’t the Doctor Who audio adventure that the other Matthew Sweet put out, the CD Roy had in mind.
I was a bit embarrassed I’d made such a dumb mistake in front of Roy. A few seconds later, I thought it was rather funny. Then again, it makes sense in a strange way. Matthew Sweet has been around for decades but only comes up in conversation by accident. His success, well-deserved thought it was, seemed slightly accidental too. Then again, that success came from two things, only one of which can be directed by someone with talent: good songwriting and the erratic spotlight of luck. In the early ’90s, against all odds, Matthew gained possession of both. He’d already made a fruitless attempt at gaining a foothold in the charts with a sophisticated synthy sound. Two albums came and went just like Matthew. No-one cared. Not really. Those albums had good songs, but they were as ’80s as neon logos. Somehow, it didn’t work.
Eventually, Matthew changed direction and got cooler clothes. Suits did not suit him. In the ’90s, anyone with a guitar had a loose shirt, jeans, and sneakers. This new Matthew Sweet looked more like a popstar than any big budget makeover could allow. With the right songs and the proper look, he was ready. Finally, so were we. I first learned about Matthew in the music section of Borders, his name popping up in the pop/rock section. His name would appear again on The Craft soundtrack, but by that time, I knew all about Matthew Sweet. He was that guy who made Girlfriend. Anything he does is going to be good, I thought rather reasonably.
Girlfriend is a fun album that came from a familiar source in pop music: a divorce. With the breakup of his marriage and a sense of freedom granted by the absence of expectation from his former label, Matthew set about crafting his best work. Essentially, Girlfriend is a light sounding record that flies through the track listing, all catchy melodies, tuneful guitar bops. When you hear the title track, you understand immediately what the rest of the album will yield.
The standout tracks are Girlfriend, the twangy jangle pop of Divine Intervention, the country leanings of Winona (because she was the coolest girl in the world), and You Don’t Love Me which sounds physically massive in the context of the other songs. Actually, the whole album is a blast of alt-90s pop fun and a deeply sincere encounter from an artist whose earnest songs sit on the good side of sincere. That’s a trick only the best artists can perform.
Years later, I still enjoy Girlfriend a lot. No it doesn’t reinvent pop music, but what it does, it does brilliantly. Matthew Sweet might not be a name many people know (we’re too busy getting it confused with the other Matthew Sweet), but I would struggle to find an artist who made his struggles seem so enjoyable, hummable, and – because it needs to be said again – fun. That’s a word not often associated with that period in American alternative rock. Matthew Sweet wasn’t afraid to bare his emotional core, giving it a backing track with his guitar – but not once does he forget to entertain his audience at the same time. Sometimes I think that maybe the reason he hasn’t really endured in the same way as his peers. But Girlfriend endures. It has made it onto lists of great albums you simply must hear before you die. Critics, tastemakers, and lovers of broken-hearted bops know the score.
Matthew Sweet is the Power Pope of Power Pop and Girlfriend is his holy writ. At this point of my blog, I’d normally sum up what makes the album I’m writing about so important, so vitally significant to a culture that has overlooked it. Not here. I’m not sure Girlfriend has been overlooked. Underappreciated, possibly, but what it does, it does without fuss and that’s something worth recognising.