Before the gold and platinum albums, before the MTV hits and critical renown, power-pop and alternative-rock pioneer Matthew Sweet was just a 13-year-old bass player sitting alone in his Nebraska bedroom, daydreaming of a life spent making music. “I was just starting to write songs and play a little guitar and I had this thought: I wonder if when I’m old and I’ve been around music a really long time, I might suddenly just be able to play lead guitar without ever properly learning how. Maybe if you just play a really long time, it just kind of comes together? And the funny thing is, it did. I’m able to.”
On Catspaw, his 15th studio album, due out January 15, 2021 on Omnivore Recordings, Matthew Sweet cranks his vintage amplifiers and steps into a role previously played by some of his generation’s most unique and incendiary lead guitarists from Richard Lloyd (Television) to Robert Quine (Lou Reed) and Ivan Julian (Richard Hell & the Voidoids). Though Catspaw is absent of his famous collaborators, their presence is felt in the mark they left on Sweet’s guitar work. His solos are audacious, confrontational, and inspired.
“I play free form,” he says. “Nothing is too labored over and that was important. It’s spontaneous. The more you can do that, the more organic it is.” He refined his style over decades of collaborating with great guitarists. “Richard’s [Lloyd] playing influenced me a lot — the ambition he has, that feeling when he just lets loose. I not only related to the approach, I related to it musically. I was also developing my ear over time. Now I can hear where I want a lead line to go.”
Catspaw is guitar-driven: 12 songs, lean and consistent, direct, and notably darker than Sweet’s recent song-cycles. Apparent in tracks like “Best of Me” and album-opener “Blown Away,” the inner-turmoil harkens back to the angst of 1993’s Altered Beast. But where Beast was the self-interrogation of an artist in his mid-20s, Catspaw is the confessions of a career artist, mature and assured in his craft and achingly transparent in his confrontations of aging and the search for meaning. “I’m trying to get my head around getting older, 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.”
In true Sweet fashion, Catspaw’s mischievous title was born from equal parts grappling with his own mortality and some television obscura from his childhood. “I learned the term from a 1967 Star Trek episode I adored as a kid. (The storyline features a gigantic feline villain). “Recently I heard “catspaw” again and started looking up definitions. 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.”
But despair is not the conclusion of Catspaw; one song, “Challenge the Gods” urges quite the opposite. “That song is about defiance. I’m saying, ‘to hell with fate and gods and things like that.’ Like Dylan Thomas said, ‘Rage against the dying of the light.’” Bolstered by a layer of chugging rhythm guitars, this pick-me-up anthem is his “I Won’t Back Down” — “Rise above, take your place / Punch the world in the face,” he sings.
Catspaw was finished just before COVID-19 struck, but tonally it feels right on time. “It really feels like the fruit of the pandemic,” says the artist. This is at least partially due to how it was written and recorded: aside from excellent drumming by longtime collaborator Ric Menck (Velvet Crush), this is Matthew Sweet’s first entirely solo effort. Sweet handles all of it: recording, mixing, Höfner bass, electric guitars, and Pet Sounds-like background vocals. Catspaw was recorded in his beloved home studio, Black Squirrel Submarine (named in part for the dark wooden interior). Prefiguring the quarantine and social distancing era, Sweet has created something whole and beautiful within the confines of isolation. It’s a testament to the potency of art-making in solitude.
“For me, being an artist is ultimately a solitary thing,” he allows. “I’ve taken comfort in that as I’ve grown older. Success and people come and go in life, but I know I will always be making music and that it continues to be fun and intriguing — that mystery of discovering what a song is going to become.” Catspaw is the latest product of a remarkably fertile period that began when Matthew and his wife returned to his native Nebraska in 2013 after two decades of living and working in the Hollywood Hills.
While recent efforts Tomorrow Forever (2017) and Tomorrow’s Daughter (2018) derive their strength from a diversity of textures and moods, Catspaw strikes with a uniformity of intent and focus. The soft, natural psychedelia of “Drifting” and “Hold on Tight” provide subtle shifts in landscape, while the longing of “Come Home” once again reiterates Sweet’s uncanny ability to capture the wavelike motion of heartache. Overall, these songs create a pleasing sensation of a prolonged, happy blur. The effect is reminiscent of Cheap Trick’s debut LP or Big Star’s Radio City, products of a bygone era of record-making when long-form flow and coherence — the exact amount of time it took to share a joint with a friend or build up the courage for that first kiss — were essential to a successful album.
It was this quality that found Catspaw a home on Omnivore Recordings. “They loved the wholeness of it,” says Matthew. “They understood it and for that reason I was really excited to give it to them.” Catspaw was mastered by industry legend Bob Ludwig.
Matthew Sweet’s journey began with a move to Athens, Ga. in the early 1980s at the urging of his pen pal, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. As a student at University of Georgia, he was immersed in the college town’s burgeoning alternative rock scene, playing in pioneering acts like Oh-OK and the Buzz of Delight. At 20, he left Georgia for New York City and a major deal with Columbia, where he released his debut solo album, Inside, in 1986. Earth, his 1989 follow-up on A&M, showcased a songwriter with extraordinary pop sensibility on the cusp of something greater. A year later, amid the smoldering ashes of heartbreak and divorce and an escape from New York to the outskirts of Princeton, New Jersey, Sweet composed the songs that became 1991’s Girlfriend, lighting the fuse for the creative triumph and commercial breakthrough that his longtime supporters in the industry knew to be inevitable. “When you’re young, you feel it differently. It’s life or death. I remember it so clearly.” Singles “Girlfriend” and “I’ve Been Waiting,” paired with their Japanese anime-laced music videos (a novelty to the American market at the time), won Sweet a lifelong international following. Altered Beast (1993) continued the hot streak with singles “Ugly Truth” and “Time Capsule,” while 1995’s 100% Fun single “Sick of Myself” reached #2 on rock radio, breaking him even wider.
Sweet continued to evolve over a string of well-received albums in the early 2000s. In 2006, he joined forces with Bangles frontwoman Susanna Hoffs to record a series of covers from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, Under the Covers, Vol. 1–3. Sweet’s music has appeared in numerous films, television shows, and games, including Austin Powers, Guitar Hero II, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Simpsons, and Scooby-Doo, among many others. Sweet was a lead consultant on Tim Burton’s Margaret Keane biopic Big Eyes in 2014.
And he’s still checking accomplishments off the list — Catspaw is the latest. “I realized after I’d finished the record that I had made it just after turning 55 and that was coincidentally the exact age I fantasized I would be all those years ago when I was hoping someday I’d be able to play lead guitar on my own album.”