My favorite song on Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, the 15-year-old powerpop classic lovingly reissued last month, is the album’s worst. Consider the title: “Winona.” Oh yes. “Could you be my little movie star?” the chorus begins. “Could you be my long-lost girl?” It does not improve. Nor does Sweet’s shot at bagging Ms. Ryder—”I feel alone,” he mews. That he released this song in 1991 is no excuse; his teenage-angst bullshit deserves its own body count.
Ah, but what an exquisite piece of teenage angst bullshit—self-absorption so total its message is universal, self-pity so ridiculous it’s sublime. Preparing to see the man himself at the Bowery Ballroom last week, I approached the two-disc Girlfriend retrospective with a mixture of wild celebration and horrified reflection. The nuclear melodic majesty of “Girlfriend” and “I’ve Been Waiting” beguiled me back in the (slack-jawed adolescent) day; I theorize that everyone has a Soundtrack to My Formative Years record that, returned to a decade or two later with the benefit of acquired “wisdom” and “maturity,” strikes one as a bit terrifying. I used to believe this?
Girlfriend inspired me to believe a sadly familiar concept in pop music: Chicks are mythic, perfect, unapproachable, treacherous beasts to be worshipped, feared, and imprisoned upon stratospheric pedestals. “She’s on another planet/She’s in my dream/She’s some kind of angel if you know what I mean,” goes the gushy one. “I Thought I Knew You,” goes the angry one. “Does She Talk?” asks the horrific “sexy” one, which, beyond noting the rather bizarre and instructive title, I refuse to discuss. Yes, Matthew, she talks. Just not to you. “Your Sweet Voice,” the legitimately sweet one, improves by suggesting that the singer’s beloved has an actual, you know, voice. Not that she gets to say anything, of course, but progress nonetheless. Too many of the potential girlfriends Girlfriend glorifies feel one-dimensional, plastic, and disposable in a way the actual songs aren’t, with Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine spraying ecstatic guitar solos throughout, lending even the ballads a sort of ecstatic mopiness that redeems weepers like, yes, “Winona.”
Sweet himself went on to an intermittently brilliant career as powerpop’s modern ambassador—1995’s (relatively) raucous 100% Fun is his best, though 1993’s Altered Beast got all the good ballads. (An early version of “Someone to Pull the Trigger” hides among the extras on the Girlfriend reissue, a perfectly pitched moan of suicidal teen- age naïveté: “Everything I’ll ever be I’ve been.”) Since then he’s mostly been . . . intermittent. Warm and familiar, but with untoward doses of spray cheese, as on this year’s Under the Covers, in which our hero re-creates various classic-to-obscure ’60s pop tunes with the chirpy assistance of—why not—Susanna Hoffs, she of the evidently still active Bangles.
Now that we’ve revisited Sweet, let us allow him to revisit us. Taking the Bowery Ballroom stage with full-band backing last Monday, Matthew and Susanna—the Scooby-Doo version of Sid and Nancy—ripped their teeth good-naturedly into “Alone Again Or,” “Sunday Morning,” and so forth, reaching their most righteous transcendence on—no explanation for this, really—Neil Young tunes. They do a killer “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” honestly, all those joyous na-na na, na-na na na‘s evoking the evening’s opening act, Brooklyn’s own Tralala, the hokey girl- group hybrid that drinks more onstage than Guided by Voices. Picture trying to watch a decent three-dude garage-pop band while four dressed-up ladies block your view and shout vaguely menacing things in unison, and you’ve pretty much got . . . well, actually, you’ve got a pretty decent metaphor for Matthew Sweet’s entire career.
Hoffs is a perfect Sweet foil, as mythic and improbable as a Girlfriend heroine. “I have no fear of time,” she breathily declares on “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” while somehow willing the earth to rotate in reverse so she still looks 16. Matthew, meanwhile, played the husky Simpsons Comic Book Guy to perfection, painstakingly noting that the Under the Covers version of “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” was based on Dion’s version, and wincing good-naturedly as the jovially underrehearsed band rattled around. Still, “Cinnamon Girl” goosed the crowd, which went nuts when Mike Myers sauntered onstage for the encore and stammered his way through “BBC,” an old Austin Powers favorite. (Perhaps Austin could teach Matthew something about entrancing the ladies.)
Afterward, Sweet indulged the crowd and blasted through “Girlfriend” in what seemed like 45 seconds, on very cheerful autopilot, honoring his one true perfect three-minute pop song. “I wanna love somebody,” it begins, and as throughout the album, you suspect maybe “anybody” would fit better. Girlfriend is all plot but absolutely no characterization, viewing women as some sort of abstract, ultimately unknowable concept to be simultaneously coveted and feared. Like Arab democracy. Part of his excellence, though, derives from his occasional utter bewilderment. Hoffs took a blast-from-the-past encore at the Bowery too: the Bangles’ “Manic Monday.” When she got to the part in the bridge where her own imaginary paramour says, “Honey, let’s go make some noise!” she tried to get Sweet to sing it; realizing he didn’t know the words, she shouted “Just say something sexy!” As the instantly befuddled look on his face might’ve suggested, Matthew could not.