"This is a song about bitterness and regret," Matthew Sweet says as he introduces one of his tunes. You could say that about many of Sweet's songs, which could be unbearably sad if it weren't for that honey-tinged voice and crunchy power pop guitar sound.
The new two-CD reissue of Sweet's 1991 breakthrough Girlfriend is a spiffy delight, revisiting one of the great 1990s power pop albums with a whole disc of new and rare tunes from the era. Girlfriend was written by Sweet as he dealt with the end of a marriage and the beginning of a new relationship. With its iconic cover art, a Mona Lisa-like shot of the teenage Tuesday Weld from the 1950s, it's a glossy album that's got hidden depth. Sweet uses elements of country rock and post-punk guitar to craft a distinctive sound, with echoes that can be heard today in the work of Wilco, Death Cab For Cutie and Ryan Adams.
In his superb liner notes for the new Legacy Edition, Bud Scoppa looks at how Girlfriend came to be. It was a watershed for the nearly unknown Sweet, who wrote songs that, as Scoppa puts it, "were poignant and yet free of gratuitous sentiment – heartfelt and hip at the same time." The stellar guitar stylings of Girlfriend were worked up by Sweet and the legendary Robert Quine (Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Lou Reed) and Richard Lloyd (Television). The sound was fresh and shimmering – Sweet demanded no effects pedals on the guitars, no synthesizers.
Tunes like "Divine Intervention," "Looking At The Sun," or "Thought I Knew You" quiver with emotion, yet there's a cathartic joy to them, too. Fifteen years on, Girlfriend doesn't feel dated. The first disc in the Legacy Edition also includes three demo bonus tracks, "Good Friend," "Superdeformed" and "Teenage Female."
The real bonus for fans of Sweet here is Goodfriend, a companion album to Girlfriend that was only distributed as a promotional item back in the day, and now getting its first official release. It's an excellent flip side to Girlfriend – with a mix of songs from the album revisited in acoustic settings, rowdy live versions and BBC sessions. In the live tracks, Sweet and band unleash some thunderous guitar riffs, reinventing the melodies of the more polished Girlfriend songs. There's a couple of excellent covers, a scorching version of Neil Young's "Cortez The Killer" and a take on John Lennon's "Isolation."
He released several albums after Girlfriend (including one of my favorites, 100% Fun), but Sweet never quite broke through to the mainstream. Yet he's still putting out great music today (his latest, Under The Covers, is an all-duets album with none other than former Bangles singer Susannah Hoff).
Girlfriend recaptures that kind of hurts-so-good ecstasy only a heartbroken hook-filled pop song can have. In its new Legacy Edition, it's an even better album than ever.