Time Capsule: Revisiting the ’90s with Matthew Sweet

[Editor’s Note: Chelsea Schlievert Yates authored the “Liner Notes” series for Hear Nebraska. Reach her at chelseadyates@gmail.com.]

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In 1995, Matthew Sweet released what would become one of his most commercially-successful albums, a twelve-track power pop pleasure called 100% Fun. This album, along with his 1991 release Girlfriend, bookended my teenage years growing up in Nebraska, with 1993’s Altered Beast providing some good support at the midpoint.

I admired Matthew’s unique style, the way he combined so many of the characteristics I idolized in 1990s music — grungy sounds, fuzzy guitars, sarcastic lyrics, vintage style — with irresistible pop melodies and stories of heartache. But beyond his heartfelt confessionals, catchy melodies, cool music videos and smart guitar solos, he represented something more. To me, he represented Nebraska.

I still remember buying my copy of 100% Fun at On Cue, the music store at the Sunset Plaza in my hometown of Norfolk. Removing the cellophane from the jewel case and using my fingernail to peel off the annoying security sticker, I couldn’t wait to pop the CD into the Discman waiting in my car. I’d heard “Sick of Myself,” the album’s single and opening track, a few times on 101.9 FM The Edge and had seen the video on MTV. Oh, how I wanted to hang out in Matthew’s retro-themed studio and drive around with him in his classic Challenger!

For me, Matthew encapsulated so much of what ’90s music was about. Like many of the ’90s artists I adored, he wasn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, and he sang openly about break-ups — very serious business to teenage me. He also invoked the heavy, scrappy guitar sounds of grunge without being grunge and, with “Sick of Myself” in particular, made his contribution to the growing list of self-deprecating Gen X anthems I cherished at the time. (One of the best mixtapes I ever made was created from of these kinds of songs; titled Zero after the t-shirt that Smashing Pumpkins’ frontman Billy Corgan made famous, its highlights included Nirvana’s “All Apologies,” Beck’s “Loser,” Garbage’s “Only Happy When it Rains,” Radiohead’s “Creep” and Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”). But Matthew’s ironic twist — an upbeat, can’t-help-but-sing-along poppy lament of broken self-worth — spoke volumes. Through this song, he reiterated a classic tenet of rock & roll: No matter how shitty things seemed, music had the power to save the day. Sometimes all you needed were some cool, loud guitars and someone to sing along with.

The album’s title, 100% Fun, referenced a line from Kurt Cobain’s suicide note of the previous year; coupled with bubbly font and a yellowed photograph of Matthew as a kid sporting old-school headphones and smiling broadly while listening to what I assumed was his parents’ stereo, this visual display of irony meant more to me than any example we studied in my high school literature classes. It was this sort of dark play in Matthew’s work that appealed to me, like the end of his song “Girlfriend” from the album of the same name a few years prior: As it builds, Matthew makes his case about why the girl to whom the song is addressed should give him a chance (he “wants to love somebody” and hears she’s “looking for someone to love”; you know how the rest of the lyrics go…). It’s pretty fun and unassuming, but then he twists the entire feel with the very last line. After some wicked guitar work, he ends by declaring: “And I’m never gonna set you free.” Creepy? Cool? I’m still not sure.

Released two years after Girlfriend and two years before 100% Fun, Altered Beast seemed a bit of a departure for Matthew. It still rocked, but it dipped into darker subject matter. He was no longer “looking for someone to love”; rather, he was in need of “someone to pull the trigger.” Life’s problems existed beyond love; his reflections on loss went far deeper than a romantic relationship coming to an end. At times he questioned life’s meaning and the role of faith. He was angrier. He swore. Some fans were upset by the bleaker content of Altered Beast, but not me. As a teen, I needed to hear voices like Matthew’s express these sorts of sentiments. It let me know that it was okay when similar thoughts entered my own mind.

I wasn’t surprised to find Matthew on 1994’s If I Were a Carpenter, a tribute to the songs of Richard and Karen Carpenter, the brother and sister duo who ruled 1970s airwaves with their soft, melodic pop sounds. Matthew’s version of “Let Me Be the One” along with covers by bands like Sonic Youth, Cracker and Shonen Knife made it my favorite compilation album of the time. Matthew fit right in to that strain of “retro-cool” that ran through ’90s alternative music: His sound complemented the vintage ringer t-shirts my friends and I wore, our trips to the Goodwill to hunt down old polyester pants and cardigan sweaters, our excitement in discovering a bunch of old eight-track cassettes and a working eight-track player at a neighbor’s garage sale.

As with other power pop musicians, critics frequently trace Matthew’s songs back to the Beatles, part-Paul (in their sing-along nature and simple snapshots of love and heartache) and part-John (a little bit gritty, a little self-loathing in that “I’m a Loser” sort of way). At times his guitar jangled like the Byrds and at others wailed like Cream-era Clapton. His vocal harmonies often reminded me of Badfinger, who I knew from my mom and dad’s old record collection. Sometimes, as with Girlfriend’s fifth track “Winona” (ah, what a great ’90s name!), the tone of his voice had a bit of a Neil Young quality to it, though more innocent and—I’ll say it, pun intended—sweeter.

At the time it didn’t matter so much to me that musicians like Richard Lloyd of Television and Robert Quine—the brilliant New York guitarist who worked with the likes of Lou Reed, Richard Hell, Tom Waits and Brian Eno—were his studio musicians; when it came to music, at sixteen I was far more impressed by what my friends and peers were into. Kids who wore Dinosaur Jr. or Counting Crows t-shirts to school one day would wear a Matthew Sweet shirt the next. That meant something. And always, discussions about Matthew circled back to his Nebraska roots:

“He’s from Nebraska, you know.”
“Yeah, he graduated from Lincoln Southeast.”
“My older brother knows a guy who used to play music with him.”
“Do you think he’ll ever move back?”

Matthew no longer lived in Nebraska by the 1990s when I started listening to his music, but that didn’t matter. As my friends and I watched him guest-star on MTV’s “120 Minutes” and the Cartoon Network’s “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” these were the thoughts that swirled in our heads. It wasn’t difficult for me to imagine Matthew once playing alongside the Nebraska artists that created and shaped the “Five for Fives” circuit my friends and I so loved. Even though, musically speaking, he was much more steeped in the 1980s scene of Athens, Georgia, where he moved after graduating in 1983, he would always be Nebraska to us. We could see a little bit of ourselves in him, and he gave us hope: If he could make it, maybe other kids from Nebraska could, too.

Matthew was one of the first artists who helped me understand that Nebraska musicians could—and should, and did—shape the bigger, broader scape of popular music. That might sound naive now, but for a kid growing up in northeast Nebraska in the days before high speed internet, before music streaming and online sharing, when national exposure for a Nebraska artist seemed far less attainable than it does today, that revelation was huge. I think that, for a lot of us who spent our teenage years in Nebraska in the 1990s, Matthew provided a fresh kind of inspiration. For aspiring musicians, he represented the possibility of radio play, record deals, and performing for audiences beyond local high schools, armories and VFW clubs. For the rest of us, he validated our dreams of crossing state lines and discovering different versions of ourselves in new scenes—geographic, creative, intellectual, artistic. And for that, I’ll always be grateful to him.