An artist who skillfully navigates the line between the power pop underground and the mainstream end of alternative rock, Matthew Sweet was a master of potent pop tunes and catchy melodic hooks, but he also knew how to make his songs rock, and his inspired use of incisive guitar work gave his songs an edge that was fresh and satisfying.
Sweet spent much of the '80s in the background, performing with the groups Oh-OK and Buzz of Delight, playing in Lloyd Cole's backing band, and releasing a pair of overlooked solo albums (1986's Inside and 1989's Earth) as he honed his skills. With 1991's Girlfriend, Sweet enjoyed a commercial and critical breakthrough, with its near-perfect fusion of pop formalism and full-bodied rock & roll. Sweet enjoyed similar success with 1993's Altered Beast and 1995's 100% Fun, while in the 2000s he devoted much of his time to more idiosyncratic projects (2003's Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu) and collaborations (a series of duo albums with Susanna Hoffs and an LP recorded with Shawn Mullins and Pete Droge as the Thorns). In 2017 he returned to form with Tomorrow Forever, a sprawling 17-song effort that clicked with critics and fans and reestablished him as a master of contemporary power pop.
Matthew Sweet began playing music while he was a high school student in his native Lincoln, Nebraska. Upon his graduation in 1983, he decided to attend the University of Georgia in Athens because of its burgeoning underground music scene. Once he arrived at college, he met Lynda Stipe and joined her band, Oh-OK, in time to play on their second EP, the Mitch Easter-produced Furthermore What, which was released late in 1983. The following year, he and Oh-OK drummer David Pierce formed Buzz of Delight, releasing Sound Castles later that year. Over the course of 1984 and 1985, Sweet cut a demo tape with producer Don Dixon. Columbia Records heard the Buzz of Delight record and the demo and offered him a contract in 1985. Upon signing with Columbia, he relocated to New York and recorded his debut, Inside. Released in 1986, Inside featured Sweet playing nearly all of the instruments on the record, supported by a drum machine; the album also featured several cameos, including Chris Stamey, Fred Maher, Anton Fier, and Aimee Mann. That same year, Sweet guested on Blast of Silence, an album by Fier's band the Golden Palominos.
Despite positive reviews, Inside was ignored upon its release and Columbia dropped Sweet. In 1988, he signed with A&M Records and recorded his second album, Earth. Produced by Fred Maher and released in 1989, Earth again featured Sweet as a one-man band, augmented by guitarists Robert Quine (Lou Reed, Richard Hell) and Richard Lloyd (Television). The album failed to make any impact, and A&M dropped Sweet as he was working on his third album in 1990. Over the next year, he earned money by touring as Lloyd Cole's guitarist while shopping a demo of his album to various labels, with little success. Eventually, the president of Zoo signed him upon overhearing the demo in an office. Girlfriend, an album largely inspired by the dissolution of his marriage, was the first album Sweet recorded with a live band, and its sound -- which was powered by Lloyd and Quine -- was considerably more immediate and raw than its predecessors. Upon its late 1991 release, Girlfriend earned strong reviews and "Divine Intervention" became a moderate hit, but it wasn't until the spring of 1992, when the title track took off, that the album became a genuine hit. By the end of the year, Girlfriend had gone gold and Sweet had moved to Los Angeles.
Sweet recorded the follow-up to Girlfriend with producer Richard Dashut, who had previously been best known for his work with Fleetwood Mac and Lindsey Buckingham. Again featuring Quine and Lloyd, the resulting Altered Beast was messier than Girlfriend and consequently received mixed reviews upon release in early 1993, yet it became a sizable college radio hit on the strength of the modern rock and MTV hits "The Ugly Truth" and "Time Capsule." After releasing the stopgap EP Son of Altered Beast in the spring of 1994, Sweet recorded his fifth album, this time with a more commercial producer -- Brendan O'Brien -- who had previously worked with Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. Released in the spring of 1995, 100% Fun received Sweet's strongest reviews to date and went gold on the strength of "Sick of Myself," his first single to scrape the bottom reaches of the pop charts.
Following 100% Fun, Sweet parted ways with Lloyd and Quine, but retained O'Brien for 1997's Blue Sky on Mars. Despite the strong initial placing for its lead single "Where You Get Love," Blue Sky on Mars received mixed reviews upon its spring release, and it failed to match the success of its immediate predecessor. In Reverse followed in 1999, and the best-of collection Time Capsule arrived a year later. Hip-O released To Understand: The Early Recordings of Matthew Sweet in 2002, a collection that Sweet followed up with the Japanese-only release Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu. He returned to the domestic studio in 2004 for Living Things, followed by a collection of choice covers with ex-BangleSusanna Hoffs called Under the Covers, Vol. 1 in 2006. In 2008, Sweet released Sunshine Lies, an all-new collection of studio material that was warmly received by both fans and critics alike, followed by Under the Covers, Vol. 2 (again with Hoffs) in 2009. Two years later, Sweet hit the road in celebration of Girlfriend's 20th anniversary, playing the album in its entirety each night. That same fall, he also released a new record, Modern Art. Sweet once again teamed with Hoffs in 2013 for their third collection of covers. Released in November 2013, Under the Covers, Vol. 3 focused on songs from the '80s. In June 2017, Sweet returned with Tomorrow Forever, his first collection of original songs in six years. May 2018 brought the release of Tomorrow's Daughter, a 12-song set featuring a number of tracks that were recorded for Tomorrow Forever but didn't make the final cut. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi