Matthew Sweet: A Remarkable Musician with a Sense of Fun

Matthew Sweet performing at Paste Studios in New York in 2017

Matthew Sweet is one of those enigmatic legends of rock and roll. The supremely talented musician has made some of the coolest power-pop records of the past 50 years. His songs are hook filled and catchy without being overly saccharine. They rock without losing a sense of the melody on the way, like the Beatles did during their Revolver and Rubber Soul days. Sweet’s been a critics’ darling with limited popular success.

The reason for Sweet’s mysteriousness is due in part to the fact that he has released so few records—15 solo studio albums during the past 38 years—as well as the fact that they’re generally excellent. His discs share little in common with each other except for their clever use of electric guitar licks and oddball lyricism. He’s only cracked the Billboard Top 10 singles mainstream rock chart once, back in 1992 with “Girlfriend,” and never had an album reach the top 50. Two of his full-length LPs, Girlfriend and 100% Fun, did earn Gold status for selling more than 500,000 copies.

In fact, to many listeners, Sweet is best known for his collaborations. He recorded three albums of cover songs as a duet with Bangles’ co-founder, singer, and guitarist Susanna Hoffs. Under the Covers, Vol. 1 featured 15 pop songs from the 1960s, such as the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing,” the Beach Boys’ “Warmth of the Sun,” and the Who’s “The Kids Are Alright.” Under the Covers, Vol. 2, released three years later, presented 16 tunes from the 1970s, including the Grateful Dead’s “Sugar Magnolia,” the Raspberries’ “Go All the Way,” and Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” Four years passed before Under the Covers, Vol. 3 came out, dedicated to hits from the ’80s, like the Go-Gos’ “Our Lips Are Sealed,” Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know,” and Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.”

What all of these selections had in common was a sense of fun. These songs promote the positive elements of being liberated by love. The tunes may differ in style from soft pop to psychedelic rock, but they all share an underlying spirit of the (changing) times. Sweet’s own music frequently shares the same vibe as this classic material.

Sweet has put out 8 solo albums in the past 24 years. He did contribute to movie soundtracks, including the song “Daddy Wasn’t There” for the 2002 film Austin Powers in Goldmember, “Cats vs. Dogs” for 2004’s Garfield: The Movie, and “Come to California” for 2007’s Nancy Drew. But Sweet’s recorded output has been sporadic during the last 10 years. He also has not performed live as often as he used to for a variety of reasons.

That’s why Sweet’s visit to Wildwood Smokehouse & Saloon in Iowa City on February 14 is such a, well . . . sweet Valentine’s Day present. It’s better than a chocolate heart! Sweet’s leap-year itinerary so far only lists six gigs, and the Iowa college town will be his smallest stop.

Sweet was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in October 1964, not long after the Beatles made their first American appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Like many kids from his generation, he began playing rock guitar before he was a teenager. He moved to Georgia to attend college, met Lynda Stipe, and joined her group Oh-OK. (Lynda’s brother Michael is the lead singer of R.E.M.) Sweet became an integral part of the Athens underground music scene during the ’80s.

But it wasn’t until the ’90s that Sweet became more widely known as a shared secret treasure. His third album, the autobiographical Girlfriend, dealt with the emotional circumstances of Sweet’s recent divorce. The lead electric guitar work by Sweet, Richard Lloyd (of the rock band Television), and Robert Quine was noted for its nasty tunefulness. To further publicize the disc, Sweet’s record company created a bonus record with acoustic demos and live versions of the songs (and unreleased covers) called Goodfriend. You couldn’t purchase one at the store—and this was years before online sales. It was a promotional item. The word of mouth about Sweet spread like wildfire as a result.

The enthusiasm for the promotional disc sparked a fervent renewal of interest in Girlfriend. The disc received rave reviews across the board, everywhere from rock mags like Rolling Stone and Spin to the mainstream press (Entertainment Weekly). It was voted the seventh best album of 1991 in the prestigious, nationwide Pazz & Jop Critics Poll.

The songs from the promo album Goodfriend have been released for general consumption on compact disc during the 21st century. The singles from Girlfriend, especially the title track and the cut “Divine Intervention,” still get lots of radio play. In 2012, Sweet went on tour playing Girlfiend live from beginning to end.

Meanwhile, Sweet has continued to put out and perform contemporary music. In 2017, he released Tomorrow Forever, his first collection of new songs in six years, followed by Tomorrow’s Daughter, a 12-song set of cuts originally recorded for but not included on Tomorrow Forever. Catspaw, released in 2021, was the first record on which he performed all the lead guitar parts as well as the additional instruments, except the drums (contributed by longtime collaborator and Velvet Crush member Ric Menck).

In addition, Sweet has a new studio album due out later this year and plans to release an archival live record from a July 4, 1993, show at Chicago’s Grant Park backed by Richard Lloyd on lead guitar, Will Rigby on drums, and Tony Marsico on bass and background vocals. Sweet has also launched a Patreon page where he shares writing demos, visual art and sculpture, livestreams, and more. His Iowa City appearance promises to include music from his entire career.