The late 1980s were rough on Matthew Sweet. After cutting his teeth in the Athens, Georgia college radio scene, playing in a ton of bands including Community Trolls with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, Oh-OK with Stipe’s sister Lynda, and the Buzz of Delight with Oh-OK drummer David Pierce, Sweet left the indie underground to sign with a major label, Columbia Records, as a solo artist. But his first two full-lengths, 1986’s Inside and 1989’s Earth, received mixed reviews and failed to meet commercial expectations. By the end of the decade, his career was in jeopardy and he was getting divorced. Then, out of that professional and personal tumult, came Girlfriend, an instant classic that redefined the breakup album.
“It’s not just breakup,” Sweet told SPIN over the phone. “It’s also looking forward. It also is falling in love.”
Girlfriend might be better classified as a “rebound album.” It takes a fascinating, prismatic approach to processing the sadness and desperation at the end of a relationship as well as the whirlwind heat of discovering a new partner. It’s packed with soul-searching religious imagery but also plenty of sexual innuendo. It’s clearly deeply personal but largely avoids being directly autobiographical. Instead, it carries on a kind of meta-contextual conversation about the male gaze by changing perspectives from song to song, cycling through narrators and objects of desire. Along the way, it builds a little black book of women, both real and imagined. Listening to it today can evoke the array of emotions experienced when swiping through the profiles on a dating app. Girlfriend is full of portraits of friends and lovers, of comic book heroines and movie stars, all promising boundless potential but, ultimately, only delivering reflections of reality.
“I’d always kinda fall in love with girls from movies,” said Sweet. “I loved, when I was really young, watching movies with Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, that kind of classic era of movie women from before I was even born.”
These idealized women permeate the album, starting with the now-iconic cover photo of actress Tuesday Weld. In fact, Girlfriend was originally titled Nothing Lasts after the album’s closing track. But, when lawyers for Weld balked that the title might be misconstrued as a comment on her career, Sweet agreed to change it. He’d spent months with his now-wife Lisa sifting through old Hollywood press photographs to find the perfect image. In the picture, Weld, who starred as Anthony Perkins’ psychopathic girlfriend in 1968’s black comedy Pretty Poison, has hoisted her sweater up above her shoulders to form a lion’s mane of fluffy fabric around her neck. She exudes power, staring into the camera, both resplendent and defiant.
“Evangeline” references the gun-slinging vigilante nun from the comics created by then-husband and wife team Chuck Dixon and Judith Hunt. Then there’s “Winona,” which, ironically, was not written about Winona Ryder. It was initially titled “Alone in the World,” until Sweet’s collaborator, English singer-songwriter Lloyd Cole, saw a photo of Ryder and suggested the title change to match the country style of the song. This was particularly awkward later when the album became a hit and Sweet was unprepared for the onslaught of questions about the song. Thankfully, Ryder was supportive, even once joining him on stage to sing backing vocals on her namesake tune.
Girlfriend was released by ‘90s upstart label Zoo Entertainment, whose roster included Keanu Reeves’ band Dogstar and comedy rockers Green Jellÿ. Zoo promoted the album with two music videos that were among the first in heavy rotation on MTV to incorporate elements of anime. Both feature strong, beautiful women but this time they’re animated. “I’ve Been Waiting” stars the Urusei Yatsura character Lum Invader and “Girlfriend” contains highlights from Osamu Dezaki’s Space Adventure Cobra: The Movie.
All of these vintage reference points contribute a timeless quality to the album. And sonically, it follows suit. Girlfriend was produced by Scritti Politti drummer Fred Maher, who avoided effects and studio trickery in favor of tasteful, straightforward arrangements that recall George Martin’s work with the Beatles, particularly Revolver. The 1970’s New York CBGB scene is referenced throughout. Lou Reed/Voidoids guitarist Bob Quine played the blistering solo on the title track. And Television guitarist Richard Lloyd can be heard all over “Divine Intervention,” “I’ve Been Waiting,” and “Evangeline.”
Lloyd was also in the live band that toured following the album’s success. In his 2019 memoir Everything is Combustible he wrote, “Matthew became a teen idol. His shows were attended by young pubescent girls who idolized him. I could have set myself on fire onstage, or played the greatest guitar in the world, and no one would’ve noticed me because they had their eyes pinned on Matthew.”
Over the decades, songs from Girlfriend have appeared in the video game Guitar Hero II, films like the 2002 Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads, and were turned into a stage musical by writer Todd Almond. Sweet is happy and humbled by the album’s ongoing impact.
“I still feel it very strongly. I still feel those songs as much as I feel new songs,” said Sweet. “I think of it as more than just a breakup album but I’m very aware how much people used it in their own lives. And I’m really happy that it was so personal for people that they still really care about it. I’ve never gotten sick of it.”