It’s been said that the term “power-pop” was originally coined by Pete Townshend to describe the marriage of brute force and brilliant melody that The Who employed at their peak. But when anyone mentions the term today, it’s usually accompanied by a roll of the eyes, a sneer, or some combination of the two. Power-pop is typically equated with skinny ties, stovepipe trousers that show way too much sock at the bottom, a distinct lack of melodic or instrumental innovation (because after all, good music died in 1969), and endlessly lovelorn lyrical fixations cooed by schleps who couldn’t get dates even if they tried. In short, power-pop is the nerdy cousin in the rock family, devoid of teeth and testicles, doomed to wallow in its own wimpiness.
But in 1991, Nebraskan native Matthew Sweet delivered a melodic, tuneful middle finger to counter such thinking, with his scrappy yet poppy tour-de-force Girlfriend. Originally titled ...Nothing Lasts, the collection was a direct result of the turbulence overtaking Sweet’s personal life at the time, with one marriage dissolving and another taking root. His previous two albums had failed to set the world on fire, and this new project was met with such an utter lack of enthusiasm from his label that he was released from his deal. But thankfully, Bud Scoppa at BMG’s fledgling Zoo imprint heard something in these tunes, at turns jagged and lush, and decided to take a chance on them, and their creator.
And what tunes they are. Blasting off with “Divine Intervention,” the most melodic paean to agnosticism ever written, Sweet and his studio band (including the incomparable Richard Lloyd and the late, great Robert Quine on guitars, and some Moon-struck drumming courtesy of Velvet Crush’s Ric Menck and producer Fred Maher) plow through just under four minutes of truly powerful pop, with Lloyd’s snakefinger leads cutting and slashing through the foundation of Sweet’s stacked vocal tracks. (There’s even a fake fade, a nod to an adventurous pop of the past.) From there, we have the comparatively sugar-sweet “I’ve Been Waiting,” fitting the aforementioned power-pop formula to a T (what McCartney would call a “silly love song”) but subverting it with more vitriol from Lloyd’s Strat. And then there’s the title track, featuring Quine at his most fleet-fingered and lethal, with Sweet’s bass and Maher’s drumming actually approaching soulful territory. And lyrically, it’s the first nod to the dark undercurrent coursing through the veins of these songs—it’s all sweetness and light ooh’s and aah’s until we reach the last line, where Sweet asserts to his beloved “I’m never gonna set you free.” The cloud behind the silver sonic lining, perhaps.
Elsewhere Sweet and crew delve into alt-country (the weepy “Winona,” the downright tragic “You Don’t Love Me”) and bluesy stompers (“Day for Night,” the raw and randy “Does She Talk”), with each song carrying the besotted lyrical weight of unrequited love. This either makes Girlfriend a concept record of sorts (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy spends an entire album’s worth of songs dealing with it), or a modern tribute to the love-gone-wrong pop/rock classics of the past, the kind that were blasted out with alarming regularity by bands like The Beatles or The Stones, proving that even cool dudes get their hearts trampled between gigs. After all, didn’t John Lennon sing “I’m A Loser” way back when, even though he looked cool as fuck while singing it? And while self-loathing would scale new heights with the oncoming grunge revolution, it wouldn’t be nearly as hummable as Sweet’s take on love and loss. An essential pop record, if only for the fact that everybody breaks up with somebody sometime, and having someone else document the experience so effectively can provide sweet medicine indeed.