Matthew Sweet’s Catspaw, is a marked contrast with his previous two albums, Tomorrow Forever and Tomorrow’s Daughter. Like those LPs Recorded in the Honeycomb Hideout home studio he established after having moved back to his native Nebraska in 2013, this latest LP sounds less zesty than either of its predecessors. And yet for all the palpable foreboding that arises from new songs like the appropriately-titled, bludgeoning opener “Blown Away,” the Sweet debut for Omnivore Recordings is ultimately not as gloomy as it might sound on the surface. It is, instead, implicitly (and roundly?) optimistic.
Besides the location for recording, there’s also further link of continuity between the preeminent power popster’s latest work and other seeming anomalies in his discography such as 1997’s Blue Sky On Mars in 1997 or the live in the studio process of In Reverse two years later. In fact, this fourteenth album of original material is the natural and perhaps inevitable extension of a recording career that dates back to 1986. As with so many prior albums, its foundation lies in tracks Matthew recorded by himself in collaboration with long-time percussionist Ric Menck, but this time, rather than overdub other musicians’ and singers’ contributions (as well as layer upon layer of himself singing). Here he plays everything except the drums—bass, guitar, piano—and does all the vocals.
From the very beginning, it’s a veritable tour de force of efficient collaboration. The aforementioned heavy riffing that commences this album consists of electric guitar chords hammering away, locked in sync with the sounds of the drum kit. At the same time, Sweet’s intrinsically melodious tenor voice harmonizes indirect balance to the stinging fretboard lines. This combination of dynamics once again brings to mind how uncannily this man’s musical persona might well be summarized as a composite of Lennon and McCartney at their mid-Sixties zenith.
The piano ringing out deep in this mix suggests how Catspaw becomes progressively lighter and bright as it unfolds. But as “Give A Little” features a more pop-oriented structure in line with its temperate tone, on “Challenge The Gods” Matthew Sweet offers a call to action as forthright as it is adamant: guitars crunch as they frame layered vocals designed to maximize the point at the heart of the words, so that the cut becomes a literal illustration of the author’s stated ethos.
The acoustic guitars that appear on “Drifting” aid in crystallizing the full scope of this man’s style. Mellifluous echoes of his voice mirror chiming electric guitars interwoven with Indian sonorities to lend the number a deceptively exotic flavor. “Best of Me” might at first seem sluggish and therefore benefit from moving at a more upbeat clip, except that the tune’s a more introspective gaze at an illusory self-image grounded in doubt. And it concludes in less than three minutes.
At this juncture, Matthew’s definitely said his piece on that particular emotional topic. Yet he’s also astute enough as a recording artist to let the strings of his Novo instrument ring out the abstract close of “Stars Explode;” having recorded, mixed, and produced this record for the vaunted likes of Bob Ludwig to master with his usual sonic expertise, Sweet deserves some kudos for this nuanced attention to detail as it suits the interstellar imagery. Likewise, for “At A Loss,” on which Sweet plays in such a way he delineates the sentiment of the number and thus reaffirms his point of view.
The sole overt stylistic nod on Catspaw actually echoes Sweet’s breakthrough third album Girlfriend. During “No Surprise,” the four-square drumming and insistent bass/guitar boom sound like direct homage to Neil Young & Crazy Horse. To then close this record with a decidedly upbeat flourish, Matthew utilizes the crisp and comparatively truncated tracks “Coming Soon” and “Parade of Lights,” proffering a conclusion that is, in effect, the sound of an artist providing final punctuation to a personal creation of which he’s rightfully proud.
Vividly defined on the cover of the enclosed eight-page booklet including the twelve songs’ lyrics, Catspaw ultimately belies its title and instead achieves multiple tangible goals for Matthew Sweet. He’s fulfilled his lifelong ambition to play lead guitar on one of his own records, further distinguished the ongoing expansion of his discography, and, last but not least, reaffirmed the eternal appeal of the noisy musicality in pure rock and roll.