For a time in the early ’90s there was a convergence of styles that made the first half of the decade exciting for fans of alternative rock. Grunge was quickly becoming the next big thing, but established bands like U2 and R.E.M. had planted the seeds that were influencing a new crop of followers. The big anthems of U2 had become post-rock fusion while R.E.M. made ’60s jangle rock and power pop cool again. Matthew Sweet was one of the rising stars of the era that combined both jangle rock with power pop melodies.
Matthew Sweet was not a new name in 1991, but he came from the same music scene in Athens GA that produced R.E.M. Like them, his music was steeped in influences from the late ’60s. Unlike R.E.M. that which made them ‘Southern’ was not always apparent in Sweet’s music.
Sweet was three albums into his discography when he got his first real breakout hit with Girlfriend. Girlfriend brought many converging influences together that were shared by grunge, indie and folk artists and wrapped them up in infectious power pop.
Easily the best of Sweet’s long list of impressive albums, Girlfriend includes the hit ‘I’ve Been Waiting”, his biggest single to date and a fine example of his emotive jangle rock style that owes much to the Beatles, Big Star and The Byrds. It’s clever video introduced a whole new generation to some of the more obscure points of Japanese animation.
Like fellow jangle rocker Marshal Crenshaw, Sweet’s songs were often melodic with enough nostalgia to add depth to contemporary subject matter. On Girlfriend for instance, the sound of a phonograph needle marking the beginning and end of the CD might have seemed like a gimmick, but here it worked to reaffirm the folksy DIY feel of the album.
Sweet’s unusual (almost flat) nasal voice added a certain amount of emotional volunerbility to his sometimes sad subject matter (like his recent divorce). The song types included a wider range of styles than his previous work. There was even a stab at country with “Winona”.
Sweet’s musical experiments would continue after Girlfriend. Arguably his music got better, but never resonated with the public with the same impact as Girlfriend. That could be because things came together well enough here to make it the go to album for anyone wanting to get the essence of the ‘Sweet sound’ at it’s radio friendly best.