1990s power-pop star Matthew Sweet was born in Nebraska – also the home of Josh Rouse, Conor Oberst, Randy Meisner, and JoJo Siwa. After finishing school he moved south to Athens, Georgia, to attend college and join the alt-rock scene. Athens had already spawned notable alt-rock bands The B-52s and R.E.M.. Sweet played in a duo, Community Trolls, with Michael Stipe, before relocating to New York with a record deal.
Sweet failed to make much impact with his first two albums, 1986’s Inside and 1989’s Earth. After he divorced and was dropped from his record deal, Sweet rebounded with the 1991 album Girlfriend. With a great band, featuring lead guitarists Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine, and singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole, Sweet matched aggressive guitars with pop-oriented songs. Sweet’s own musical contributions are also significant – his warm bass playing and walls of stacked harmonies are both features of his sound. He’s never been a huge commercial force, but he’s admired critically for his pop-craft.
I’ve only covered Sweet’s work between 1991 and 2003, but he’s continued to release albums. As well as solo records, he’s also collaborated with other artists, playing as a member of The Thorns and releasing a series of cover albums (named Under The Covers) with The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs.
Matthew Sweet Album Reviews
After struggling with a pair of unsuccessful solo records during the late 1980s, Matthew Sweet kick-started his career with the emotionally charged Girlfriend. Personal turmoil often breeds great art, and going through a divorce and falling in love again inform the songs here; it’s almost a one-man Rumours for the 1990s, encompassing acoustic resignation (‘You Don’t Love Me’, ‘Nothing Lasts’), swaggering kiss offs (‘Evangeline’), and statements of love, both tender (‘I’ve Been Waiting’) and ambiguous (the title track concludes with the ominous “I’m never going to set you free”). Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours isn’t a bad musical reference point for the album either; like Lindsey Buckingham, Sweet’s a studio craftsman with a debt to 1960s pop/rock, and this album’s awash in warm harmonies (all Sweet multi-tracking himself) and meticulous studio craft, but it’s also aggressive and guitar-centric enough to stand comfortably in 1991. While Sweet also handles the bass and rhythm guitars, the record’s enriched no end by the lead work of Richard Lloyd (Television) and Robert Quine (Lou Reed), who add scintillating solos to most of these tracks. At its best, Girlfriend is a nearly unstoppable mix of huge hooks, emotionally charged songs and instrumental virtuosity; trimmed down to a 40 minute, 10 song album, it would be easily one of my favourite albums of the 1990s.
As it stands, the first six songs still form an almost unstoppable sequence – the brash rock statements of the title track and ‘Divine Intervention’, one of several songs where Sweet vents frustrations at his maker, and the sweet, Byrds-like ‘I’ve Been Waiting’ are a solid opening trio, while the harmony laden ‘Looking At The Sun’, the winsome country fantasy of ‘Winona’, and the brash riff pop of ‘Evangeline’ also tear up. The latter in particular is one of my favourites, with its spiralling guitar riff, hilariously over the top lyrics (“Try her on, she fits like a glove/Too bad the only man she trusts/Is God above”) and killer Lloyd solo. It’s almost impossible for the rest of the album to maintain these lofty heights, but there are still some great tracks scattered among the rest of the album – the mournful ‘You Don’t Love Me’, underscored by Greg Leisz’s pedal steel, the fragile mental state documented in ‘Your Sweet Voice’ (“Speak to me with your sweet voice…..it’s as close as I get to love”), and the frantic acoustic strum of ‘Thought I Knew You’ would all make my hypothetical ten song version.
One man coming to terms with his heart being broken then renewed, backed by lots of kickass guitar playing – it’s all documented on Girlfriend.
The subject matter of Girlfriend may have been dark, but by and large it had poppy melodies and memorable choruses. But Altered Beast is darker and moodier. It’s named after the arcade game Altered Beast; Sweet said that “whatever is inside you that someday might explode, and maybe you don’t know it’s there.” Robert Quine and Richard Lloyd are back from the previous record, joined by drummers Mick Fleetwood, Jody Stephens (Big Star), and Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello’s Attractions), as well as pianist Nicky Hopkins.
With their darker and more insular edges, the songs often lack the immediacy of his Girlfriend material. There’s worthy power pop, like ‘Do It Again’, but it’s telling that Sweet chose ‘The Ugly Truth’ as a single. With its country fiddle and dark subject matter, it’s an unusual choice, but it’s indicative of the record’s mind-set. Like a lot of albums from the CD era, Altered Beast runs too long, pushing an hour, but there are a lot of treasures, even as it’s too samey; other highlights include the Richard Lloyd showcase of ‘Falling’ and the aggressive opener ‘Dinosaur Act’.
It’s not his best work, but Altered Beast is a prime era Matthew Sweet album with a lot of strong material.
100% Fun is an audacious album title and Sweet doesn’t make the grade for all the tracks on his third album of the 1990s. After two sprawling albums that would have benefited from a prune, 100% Fun is a tight, 40 minute, twelve song set. But at the same time, it’s hollow at times, like Sweet’s formula of mixing warm pop craft with searing guitars is running out of steam.
But even while the weaker songs grate, there’s lots of strong material on 100% Fun. Lead off track and single ‘Sick Of Myself’ careens along on a great riff, invigorated with lead guitar from Richard Lloyd. It forms a terrific opening three punch with the pretty power pop of ‘Not When I Need It’ and ‘We’re The Same’. But apart from the lovely closer, ‘Smog Moon’, the rest of the album fails to measure up to Sweet’s usual standards – Sweet’s work is closer to the lowest common denominator than usual on songs like ‘Super Baby’.
100% Fun is a good solid Matthew Sweet album, but it’s another step down in inspiration from Girlfriend and Altered Beast.
Blue Sky On Mars
For Blue Sky On Mars, Sweet finally broke with the formula he’d used throughout the 1990s – the hot shot band with Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine is absent. Instead Sweet and producer Brendan O’Brien handle most of the instruments, although Rick Menck still appears on drums for some tracks along with Stuart Johnson. The result is an edgier and stripped-down record that lacks the instrumental firepower of previous Sweet albums. It was a good time for Sweet to try something different, after his albums were starting to sound formulaic, but it’s his least satisfying record of the decade. The cover font is by Roger Dean, famous for his album art for 1970s acts like Yes.
The CD version of Blue Sky On Mars is messy, with the songs bleeding into each other’s tracks – you’ll get a short blast of the previous song’s ending at the start of each track, noticeable if you play the album on random. The best known song is ‘Where You Get Love’, a synth heavy singalong with crashing guitars, while opener ‘Come To California’ is energetic and infectious. Elsewhere, Sweet’s more pensive on the meditative ‘Until You Break’ and on the closing ‘Missing Time’.
Blue Sky On Mars is Sweet’s least notable record of the decade, but it’s still perfectly adequate, underlining how strong Sweet’s 1990s catalogue is.
Girlfriend is the established classic in the Sweet canon, and has tended to overshadow his subsequent later work, but 1999’s In Reverse is even stronger, even if it slipped under the radar since its baroque pop sound was further from the 1999 mainstream than the guitar heavy Girlfriend was in 1991.
The sound is deliberately 1960s tinged, but in creative ways; the title refers not only to the reversed cover art and booklet but also to the reverse instrumentation that colours the album. Few 1960s albums used backwards instruments in such a mainstream pop context so successfully; ‘What Matters’ uses a melodic reverse riff, ‘Millennium Blues’ opens with reverse horns, while ‘If Time Permits’ spins into a great reverse guitar solo. Taking the experimentation even further, four of the tracks use the Phil Spector production technique, using up to 20 musicians in the studio at once to recreate the wall of sound that fuelled Pet Sounds and Spector’s early sixties pop classics. Sixties session bassist Carole Kaye, who played on most of the original wall of sound sessions, is on board here, and the four songs recorded with the band run the gamut from three minute pop masterpiece ‘If Time Permits’ to an ambitious ten minute pop suite ‘Thunderstorm’.
On most pop records, these huge sounding songs would stick out like sore thumbs, but the rest of the material here is lush and multi-tracked enough that they dovetail in nicely. There are plenty of great album tracks here, and even if it doesn’t have as many great songs as Girlfriend it’s far more consistent; on one level songs like ‘Trade Places’ and ‘Untitled’ are minor, but they’re also full of interesting little melodic twists, and if anything does mar the album it’s the more abrasive album tracks like ‘Split Personality’ and ‘Write Your Own Song’ which are out of place. Classics include the dreamy ‘If Time Permits’ and ‘Hide’, a sweet piano ballad coloured by some terrific Kaye bass lines and a theremin that takes over the role of a string section without plunging the song into sappiness. ‘What Matters’ is creative power pop with its backwards guitar parts, ‘Worse To Live’, another product of the wall sound sessions, rides its huge chorus into the ground with about twenty reiterations, but it’s beautiful all the same, especially the way Sweet’s voice hits a low note at the end of each verse as the chorus comes in over the top, while ‘Thunderstorm’ has some great moments over its ten minutes, featuring harpsichord.
Any fan of lush studio based pop like post Rubber Soul Beatles or XTC will find plenty to love here too.
Time Capsule: The Best Of
This compilation ignores Sweet’s first two albums, released in his early twenties, Instead, it starts from 1991’s critically acclaimed Girlfriend and ends with two new tracks from 2000. At least one of the two new tracks is also terrific; ‘So Far’ is another Sweet patented harmony laden power popper, although the T-Rex inspired stomp of ‘Ready’ isn’t as effective.
Kimi Ga Suki
Kimi Ga Suki was originally planned as a Japanese only release, as a thank you to Japanese fans, but received a worldwide release in 2004, a year after its initial release. Sweet stated that he wrote the album in a week, and produced it at his home. He recorded with a four piece band – Sweet’s bass and guitar is joined by Richard Lloyd, Rick Menck, and Greg Leisz. If that sounds like a return to his early 1990s Girlfriend lineup, that’s exactly what Kimi Ga Suki is; a collection of sharp rockers featuring Lloyd’s lead guitar.
The return to Sweet’s Girlfriend sound is a blast, but the album does lack diversity, and the lyrics are goofier than usual – reportedly an attempt from Sweet at writing in “Engrish”. My favourite song from Kimi Ga Suki is disarmingly titled ‘I Love You’ – its keening chorus makes for the most memorable song. The acoustic ‘Love Is Gone’ does vary the pace a little – dropping drums and filling up the mix with warm harmonies, but it’s the power-pop of ‘I Don’t Want To Know’ and ‘The Ocean In Between’ that’s the album’s main calling card.
Kimi Ga Suki is less essential than any of Sweet’s 1990s albums, but it’s a joy to hear his stripped-back band rip through these songs.
Ten Best Matthew Sweet Songs
If Time Permits
I’ve Been Waiting
Sick of Myself
Where You Get Love
Worse To Live
Save Time For Me
Return to 1990s Album Reviews…
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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