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Matthew Sweet talks about his excelent Girlfriend

Matthew Sweet
Girlfriend.
ZOO Records.
Paradise Rock Club.
September 12.

By Chris Roberge
Arts Editor

In a review I wrote for the 1991 WFNX Best Music Poll Concert in April, I said that the music of Matthew Sweet had "the potential to drag and fall flat." After I formed that opinion, two things that drastically changed my mind occurred. One was hearing the energetic first track of Sweet's Girlfriend, "Divine Intervention," and another was witnessing the brutally powerful delivery that Sweet and his band used to serve up all of the pleasures of the album that I had somehow overlooked. After taking a closer listen to Girlfriend, I now realize that this deeply personal and musically exciting collection of songs was one of the better albums of the last year and I welcomed the chance to speak with Sweet about his great work.

One of the greatest strengths of Girlfriend is the ability of the instantly memorable melodies, strikingly intimate lyrics, and exceptionally strong guitars to cut across generic boundaries. Sweet admitted that one possible reason for the disparity between his music's critical and popular successes is the difficulty of classifying what type of music Girlfriend actually is, saying "that keeps a lot of people from selling records, because radio is really what sells records. Most people just don't know about anything that doesn't get stuck right in front of them. And a lot of people listen to the radio, so I think that's a place where that segregation really occurs."

Radio currently places Matthew Sweet into either "pop" or "alternative" markets, and Sweet is quick to point out the misleading nature of those names. "To me it's kind of funny to call it alternative now because it seems really mainstream. So many of these records, like the Pearl Jam/Nirvana records, are selling millions of copies. That's mainstream. It's almost like it's not alternative anymore. Even the alternative radio stations are becoming more and more commercial."

With Girlfriend, Sweet has departed from a more refined and predigested sound that he achieved primarily through the use of drum machines. The rawness and spontaneity in his new songs have led many people to refer to them as throwbacks to the 1950s, a notion that scares Sweet. "I've never been into people who just wanted to be a revival kind of a thing, like the Stray Cats or whatever. That guy's a really good guitar player, but that was what turned me off to rockabilly -- that reviving a style and trying to recreate the past was something I've never been into. I've always wanted to live in my own time and because of that I used machines for a long time. And then I just came back to making as simple and organic a record as I did just because I finally found through making demos at home that that was just the way the music came alive for me."

The songs on the album alternately speak to the hopeless and the hopeful, with lyrics that deal with the pain of loneliness and godlessness and the joys of being in a relationship. The original title of the album was Nothing Lasts, before Sweet switched to the more upbeat Girlfriend. The duality exists even in the cover photo of actress Tuesday Weld, who was a screen beauty in the 1950s, but who later in her career "was so obscure she had killed herself in 1979," Sweet said.

Another song on Girlfriend with a link to loneliness and movie actresses is "Winona," with its plaintive chorus, "Won't you be my little movie star." "Actually, Lloyd Cole suggested I call it that," Sweet explained. "I didn't have a title for a long time and he knew that I liked the movie Heathers. He thought that we should call it `Winona' because I wanted a kind of a country title and at the time she was still a lot more obscure. First of all it didn't occur to me that there would be a lot of people giving attention to anything I did. And second of all it didn't occur to me that people would think that it was about her. Then by the time the record came out she had actually heard the song through a guy at Rolling Stone and supposedly liked it so I thanked my friend for sending it to her because at the time I didn't think the record was even going to come out. It was a really dark period and I thought, `Well at least Winona Ryder heard my record.' "

Sweet admitted that many people did think that the track was a love song written expressly for Winona Ryder. "When I'm writing songs I don't usually think about any sort of audience. It's always been more of a personal thing for me. I just write whatever I feel like at the time and it's usually governed very much by what kind of a mood I'm in, but usually not nearly as literally-based as most people think my songs are. I don't sit down and write a song to a specific person. For example the song `You Don't Love Me' seems like a really personal song, and it is in a way because it encapsulated a really unhappy feeling for me. But technically it wasn't that I felt unloved in the relationship that I was going through. So you have to take it with a grain of salt. The words are generally more pulled out of a hat than they seem. It's just that I write in a really conversational tone, giving the songs a more personal quality, and I think that's a strength of the music. But it does scare me when people think it's all exactly autobiographical."

After saying that his songwriting was a very personal process and not really geared toward any particular audience, Sweet, laughing, described his live performances in a similar fashion. "In live shows I just try to have fun, I guess, in a pretty selfish way too. We're really looking forward to doing club shows again because we've been doing a lot of opening dates at big outdoor places and it's only so fun. We want to turn our volume up loud and be messy and throw our guitars around. All of this looks kind of stupid when you're an opening act without a diehard audience."

Matthew Sweet will be performing in a completely selfish appearance at the Paradise on September 12, but chances are that the audience will get a good deal of satisfaction out of the show anyway.