Review: Matthew Sweet – Catspaw
Local Music Reviews
Matthew Sweet = Grateful Dead + The Beach Boys + Todd Rundgren
Matthew Sweet’s breakthrough album came out in the pivotal year of 1991. It was the year that rock music transcended away from Guns-N-Roses’ Use Your Illusion and tilted toward Nirvana’s Nevermind. The year was a sea of change that started a tidal wave. All you need to do is google best albums of 1991 and it is littered with iconic records. One record from that year that escapes immediate attention is the tragically underrated Girlfriend by Matthew Sweet. Girlfriend was an album that exploded to all your pleasure centers and stuck like candy. At the time of release, it was different—it was void of that bland angst that would eventually unfold to the masses. It was less doom-and-gloom Black Sabbath sludge and more Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds–era addictive charm.
Thirty years later Matthew Sweet is still delivering pop-rock brilliance on his 14th album, Catspaw. Sweet continues to make heartbreak and heartache feel comfortable and pleasant like a warm blanket. It’s Sweet’s blueprint and it always works. Sweet’s signature sound is guitar-friendly bliss surrounded by a honeybee buzz that vibrates in every song. Catspaw is Sweet’s first true solo record—it’s almost 100% Sweet. With Prince-like attention Sweet plays every instrument on the album, only reaching out to Ric Menck (Velvet Crush) for help on drums. Catspaw sounds like a COVID quarantine project, but it is not. Catspaw was all wrapped up and done prior to lockdown.
The first single, “Blown Away,” is a guitar-crunch slap in the face that stings with a Clapton-heavy urgency and purrs with a Jerry Garcia–like psychedelic thread. “Blown Away” sets the theme for the rest of the record—being stuck in a moment with nowhere to go and unseen winds of insecurities coming to blow away and tear apart. “I’m out on a limb / Reaching for you / I’m out of my mind / Out of my mind dreaming of you,” Sweet sings on “At A Loss.” It’s a track that, lyrically and instrumentally, sounds Beatles-esque in its approach; it’s a track that could fit comfortably on Rubber Soul.
For the entirety of the record, Sweet runs the gamut of ’70s-era power-pop bubblegum with heavy guitar hooks that drop like bags of cement, as on “No Surprise.” Sweet pours out the syrup and turns it into gold. The record is flooded with hippie platitudes. There are many examples throughout Catspaw: “Give a little bit of love / And I’ll give a little bit of love back to you” (“Give A Little”), “Just do what you want to do / Go where you want to go” (“Challenge The Gods”) and “Stars explode and life flows / Stars explode and life grows” (“Stars Explode”). What could get lost in banality, Sweet makes it work by propping up these songs with frenetic guitar work and overlapping vocals. Catspaw is a box full of kittens.
I love this record. Sweet never disappoints. If you are new to Matthew Sweet, I would suggest starting with Girlfriend (1991), move to Altered Beast (1993), and complete the trifecta with 100% Fun (1995). If you want to dig deeper check out his cover records with Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles), Under The Covers. Matthew Sweet is truly a hidden treasure. On the final track of Catspaw (“Parade Of Lights”), Sweet sings: “There’s a parade of light right back to where you’ve been.” Let’s hope that Matthew Sweet keeps this parade going. –Russ Holsten