"Girlfriend" was one of those out-of-nowhere singles that could have -- should have -- turned its author, Matthew Sweet, into just another one-hit wonder, especially since he chose to follow the album it appeared on (also called Girlfriend) with Altered Beast, a more experimental, less straightforward disc. Beast dabbled with fiddles and steel guitars and never got the respect it deserved, dwelling in the shadow of his previous release. Yet somehow, Beast wasn't the end of Sweet's career. In fact, it was where it really started, as he transformed himself from pop poster boy to cult hero. In that role, he's found a place where he sells enough records to keep his position at BMG (though he did move from one BMG label, Zoo, to another, Volcano, this year), but he doesn't sell quite enough to have someone guarding his career, hoping to milk out that next big single -- maybe another underdog hit like "Divine Intervention." There, Sweet is allowed the space to tweak his sound without fear, and he's matured from a solo performer to a band leader, forming lasting relationships with a group of musicians who have become more than just scenery in his videos.
Girlfriend may be the quintessential Sweet record, chock-full of concise, melodic songs with dry guitar solos and lyrics of love lost that are far darker than most pop fare. However, it's not the only Sweet album. Eight years and four albums after its release, each new album is still held up to Girlfriend, the great pop litmus test of his career. Both 1995's 100% Fun and 1997's Blue Sky on Mars were more Girlfriend than Beast in pop purity, yet they were forced to live up to easy comparisons rather than live on their own. Likewise, his latest release, In Reverse, was touted as Girlfriend Part II, the most preposterous analogy yet. Whereas Girlfriend was stripped down to its most minimal elements, In Reverse is almost ridiculously fleshed out by a small army of musicians paying homage to Phil Spector's fabled Wall of Sound.
In Reverse offers proof that Sweet has become a bona fide composer, an arranger on top of a writer; he now employs 17 different performers, including bass player Carol Kaye, the trump card for any game of Six Degrees of Separation of '60s and '70s pop icons. (Kaye has played with everyone from the Beach Boys and Frank Zappa to Quincy Jones and Henry Mancini.) From the opener "Millennium Blues" to the closing number "Thunderstorm," a 10-minute, 16-person performance of four like-minded tracks, Sweet gives his standard pop songs a lush, voluptuous makeover with several guitars and pianos, dueling drums, theremin, and brass instruments whose parts are sometimes mixed into songs backward -- just part of the In Reverse cuteness that also includes a backward CD booklet. And contrary to the name, Sweet still isn't looking backward.