Three and a half out of Five Stars
Best known over the past 35 years or so as one of the champions of pervasive power pop, a sound and style heavily invested with a mix of melody and reverence for classic rock tradition, Matthew Sweet embraces edgier intents on Catspaw, his 15th album overall.
Mostly a solo affair, sans the famous collaborators he’s worked with in the past, it’s a lean, mean and gritty affair, one that bows to Sweet’s desire to establish himself as a lead guitarist fully capable of stepping to the instrumental fore. Although it doesn’t necessarily indicate some sort of insurgent attitude, songs such as “Coming Home,” “Blown Away” and “Challenge the Gods” do find him in darker domains, an arena mostly devoid of the lush arrangements that have marked Sweet’s more prominent efforts to date. There are exceptions—the billowy “Drifting,” the psychedelic strains of “Stars Explode” and “Parade of Lights,” and the Laurel Canyon like lilt that wafts through “Hold On Tight” in particular—but overall it’s a more pronounced approach that dominates the proceedings.
Sweet claims that the tone was dictated by his attempts to come to grips with the inevitably of aging and the belated onslaught of maturity. “I’m trying to get my head around getting older,” he remarks in the press release that accompanied the album. “I want to let go, I want to tell the ugly truth … I want to do all kinds of different things in my head and they really popped out in these songs.”
Sweet also reveals the fact that the title was borne from his struggle to reconcile himself with his own mortality infused with some obscure trivia gleaned from his childhood. “I really connected to the idea of the certain and deadly inevitable—the pounce. Don’t ever forget life is totally cruel and the catspaw is already coming down on you.”
Despite the fact that Catspaw was recorded entirely on his own, save drumming from longtime pal Ric Menck of Velvet Crush, and put together in his home studio prior to the pandemic, the album still manages to retain an emphatic edge while eschewing any hint of sadness or sobriety. It seems to be the next natural step in a career that’s always been capped by one accomplishment after another and brought him considerable regard in the process.
“What if the best of me isn’t good enough,” Sweet asks himself on the track fittingly titled “Best Of Me.” “What if the best of me isn’t me at all?” Judging from the results realized herein, Sweet’s clearly got no reason to worry.