Catspaw shows Matthew Sweet still has a knack for harmonies and earnest, cheery heartache. Why change a formula since it's worked for so long? One for the college rock kids-turned-adults.
Those of us around a certain age may fondly remember the college rock movement of the early-to-mid ‘90s. Lord knows I do.
For a period of time, power-pop became fused with bittersweet moments that reigned across college radio in the United States. Juliana Hatfield, Grant Lee Buffalo, Luscious Jackson, Saturday Morning Cartoons’ Greatest Hits; the list diverged at times as different genres laid claim to the likes of Weezer or The Caulfields.
But there was feeling, a vibe if you would, that these bands were one or two notches beneath the adult-orientated rock (AOR, or MOR in Hootie and The Blowfish’s case). Almost like a rite of passage in dorm and sixth form rooms across the saturated hue of the ‘90s.
Matthew Sweet was one of those dynamos part of the power-pop/college rock movement. His lyrics resounded with young adults, coupled with the dazzling music video for “Girlfriend” incorporating scenes from Space Adventure Cobra – yeah, they were formative for many of us.
You may know of Sweet without actually realizing who he is; the super-group of Ming Tea, featured in the Austin Powers series, featured Sweet on guitar. It also included Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles – it led to the two of them working together throughout the ‘00s.
Essentially, Sweet knows his audience. We’ve grown up with him.
So why then on album 15, Catspaw, would we expect Matthew Sweet to change things up given the formula he has stuck with so far has worked, for better or for worse?
The shrewd, shrill guitar fills permeate the album, all accomplished by Sweet himself for the first time in his career (we are told), starting with album opener “Blown Away” and then throughout the more pop-rock moments.
As always, they solidly cut-through some of the treacle Sweet served up, but long-time fans knew that was always going to be the case.
At it’s more earnest moments, the wistful harmonies Sweet has unequivocally mastered over the vast years he’s been songwriting are still strong. His harmonization is envious as the woebegone “Drifting” showcases and his knack of crafting affecting numbers.
“Best of Me”, the track immediately following this, seems like a double punch to the gut and a stronger tug on the heart-strings.
The trouble though is how much Sweet leans into this “emotive” songwriting and how by todays standards this could be very much considered what we hoped it wouldn’t be anytime soon – it’s an MOR album.
At least for a younger generation who may have missed out on Brendan Benson, and skipped straight into one of the more recent incarnations of the emo movement (those inspired by Quicksand or Sunny Day Real Estate.)
For them, perhaps the notions put forward by Sweet aren’t quite as abrasive or harrowing as a modern breed of broken-hearted songwriters/unrequited lovers. It then becomes more of a case of “back in my day” semantics.
But to quote the great scholar Seymour Skinner, “no, it’s the children who are wrong.” As I shake my almost middle-age fist to the sky.
I am an adult now and Matthew Sweet’s brand of kaleidoscopic power-pop is more orientated towards me still. I have become what I thought I would loathe and yet, we all grow up and grow old.
Catspaw hasn’t though – instead, it’s provided more of the same from Sweet and is enjoyable enough that you will find yourself returning to it for repeat listens. It does tend to be for a certain audience though and if you’re curious to start from here the answer is; maybe.
If “Girlfriend” and “Sick Of Myself” become earworms that get stuck in your head then yes this is an album for you to invest in. If you were expecting a cataclysmic shift in styles from Sweet then we’d posit the question “why would such a thing occur on album 15?”