Graham Reid | | 6 min read
Matthew Sweet comes with a double
handicap: the unthreatening “Matthew” and then . . . “Sweet” Hmm, very
soft, very sweet.
It isn’t a promising start and he
made life doubly difficult by calling his last album Girlfriend and
putting a lovely furwrapped, teenage Tuesday Weld on the cover.
Wow, Matthew Sweet's Girlfriend ? Would
you go into your local store and ask for that?
"Sure, you want the Cowsills’
Greatest Hits and the Richard Carpenter solo album too?"
Needless to say, he’s nothing like
any first impressions the names might suggest.
He’s a rangy guitarist and
penetrating lyricist who writes great songs which catch a little of
the post-Byrds/R.E.M. shimmer (Your Sweet Voice on Girlfriend) or
serrating Neil Young grit (Ugly Truth Rock on his new album, Altered
He can float and sting … and between the Essential Elsewhere album Girlfriend (“one of the finest albums of '92 and easily one of the greatest pop songs of recent years in I’ve Been Waiting," insisted Lynden Barber in the Sydney Morning Herald) and Altered Beast ("a tougher but even more dazzling exercise in pop-rock perfection,” says Billboard) he slipped out a promo-only, mostly acoustic and live album called Goodfriend.
It includes faithful and extraordinary versions of Young's Cortez the Killer and Lennon’s Isolation.
Any way you cut it, Sweet is a major
contender. And it isn’t just the critics who think so. Ask
yourself, would Robert Quine (ex-Voidoid and Lou Reed’s bands),
Television's Richard Lloyd, Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, Lloyd
Cole and ex-Attraction Pete Thomas line up to play with Sweet if he
was just a pretty face?
So where does this R.E.M. offsider,
onetime Golden Palomino and big cult thing come from?
Lincoln, Nebraska, actually . . . but
then Athens, Georgia and New York.
As a teenager, he says, he got into
British bands such as Generation X, the Buzzcocks and XTC. By
inclination he preferred the more melodic people like Nick Lowe and
Elvis Costello, “then I went on this American rock kick and got
into Television and Richard Hell and the Voidoids -- ironically, some
of the people I've ended up working with. Then it was into the dB’s,
early R.E.M. and Big Star.”
After high school he moved to Athens,
Georgia, largely prompted by meeting R.E.M. on their way through
Nebraska way before they had any major-label records out.
That friendship established, he began a
correspondence with Mitch Easter (Let’s Active), who had produced
R.E.M.’s indie releases.
“I wrote to him many times and he
said Athens was a good place to go, so I went -- for lack of any
He stayed for two years, made a record
with Buzz of Delight (which also included R.E.M. Michael Stipe’s
sister Lynda) and cut demos which he passed around. One fell into the
hands of someone at Columbia who immediately signed him to a
"They gave me money to quit
school, an eight-track recorder and a contract with a clause which
said they'd make an album. That was uncertain – but it was a great
deal anyway, so I moved to New York in mid-'85 and have been there
since up until very recently."
He did make an album, Inside, which he
says “is very poppy; I was very young on it," but it provided
a wealth of experience. In the manner of many records of the period,
it was recorded with a variety of producers (latter-day R.E.M.
producer Scott Litt among them) and had members of the avant-rock
Golden Palominos playing on some tracks.
The album didn’t sell especially well (although it was reissued after the cult success of Girlfriend) and when his contact within the company moved over to A&M, Sweet went with him. In '89 he released Earth for them, co-produced with Fred Maher and David Allen (latterly a Cure producer).
“It was a more mysterious album than
Inside but didn't do much saleswise, either. It was closer to
Girlfriend than Inside. It's the missing link in the Sweet story.
“I actually recorded Girlfriend for
A&M but my guy resigned and said, because they were going through
a whole lot of internal changes, that I should be free to find
someone else to release it. It was my third album, so we spent months
trying to sell it and finally got a deal with Zoo, who had already
passed on it.”
The story goes that the president of
Zoo heard Girlfriend being played in his A&R chief’s office one
day and -- in spite of the fact that his company had already rejected
the album -- insisted Sweet be signed immediately.
“It was just a big surprise to us
that it came out at all, and it was already a year old when it did."
And for those who got past the Sweet
name and Weld cover, there were treasures aplenty, from the acerbic
Beatlesque Divine Intervention (“I cannot understand my God . . .“)
through the sad ballad You Don't Love Me (“what a beautiful moment,
the truth comes out at last") to the acoustic closer, Nothing
It was at times the sound of a man
opening his heart and veins to memorable melodies.
“People thought it was exactly
autobiographical, but it wasn't,” he laughs.
“I'd always written depressing
break-up songs or dumb, happy songs, and the title suggested to
people it was all true. Originally it was going to be called Nothing
Lasts, but we really wanted to use that Tuesday Weld photo. So when
her management agreed but asked if she would have a problem with the
album title, I changed it.
“They thought it might be some
comment on her -- which it wasn't. I’d liked the photo because it
was this really young person who thought they knew everything and was
extremely cocky. I hadn't actually seen any of her movies . . . but
she was in that Michael Douglas movie Falling Down recently. And she
looks really terrible now."
The new album, Altered Beast, pushes
the extremes of Girlfriend’s emotional range even further -- “not
so much me-and-you but more you-and-yourself” -- in the hands of an
unlikely producer, Richard Dashut, known for his work on Fleetwood
Mac's Rumours and Tusk.
It was that latter work which drew
Sweet to him: “It‘s an amazing record, really heartfelt and quite
Beatlesque in its dry quality. I thought I’d like to try something
different but also make something different from the Mac albums. I
wanted a really fast, trashy record and he was into that because he’s
only ever done these long, studied records."
With its pop sensibilities, scouring
guitars and sometimes country-rock attitude, Altered Beast puts Sweet
once again into the lineage that runs from Big Star (he is an
admitted early fan), Jules Shear (ex-Jules and the Polar Bears) --
“funny you should mention him; he’s a friend and we co-wrote when
I first went to New York”) – and R.E.M.
It’s good company and with the single
Ugly Truth taking off in the States, it looks like Sweet has found
his audience at last. He's been out opening for the Indigo Girls --
where he met violinist Scarlett Rivera, who plays on that promo-only
Goodfriend -- and recently headlined an 80,000 festival in Chicago.
Hardly a household name yet, but a
sweet thing once tasted, much sought after. One of the best of that
current American crop which includes Mark Eitzel of American Music
Club, Paul Westerberg and Jules Shear.
“Writing for me is actually the easy
part; it’s trying to have success and deal with all the real world
things that is the hard bit.”