Matthew Sweet is “At a Loss” for words, as he tells it, in the hard-rocking first single from his upcoming album. You might even imagine that it’s the cat that’s got his tongue, looking at the seemingly menacing feline on the cover of the forthcoming “Catspaw,” which comes out January 15, 2021. The debut track from the collection is out today, and Variety has the exclusive premiere.

Listening to “At a Loss,” you might get the impression that it’s an aggressive song about feeling adrift, if that’s not too great a contradiction in terms.

“Yeah, definitely,” says Sweet, calling in from his home in Nebraska, where he recorded the new album. “That’s really kind of a me thing, going way back, where the lyrics and the sound in the song will be opposed a little bit — and I like that about it. The guy is maybe unsure how the person he’s singing to feels. He’s kind of reticent to say how he feels until he knows how they feel. So it’s kind of like: Until you speak. I don’t know what to say,'” he laughs.

“Also, he adds, “it’s just very pandemic — ‘I’m at a loss,’ you know?” Check out the new track, below.

The “Catspaw” album was completed before the pandemic, but reading the credits, you might expect it was something he did under quarantine, since it’s as close to being completely DIY as anything he’s ever done. The only other player on the album is drummer Ric Menck; Sweet, besides producing and mixing it himself, also played the Hofner bass, keyboards, and guitar — leads included. That’s a first for Sweet, who has always left the soloing to a succession of great players, like Richard Lloyd, Ivan Julian and Robert Quine. “At a Loss” establishes that Sweet’s lead playing is of a piece with some of the other famous guitarists he’s had in his band.

“One thing about this album is that it’s really consistent in the approach,” Sweet says. “It’s a pretty rock album for me. I think a big influence over it is that I played all the lead guitar myself on it, and that pulls it together and makes it it all gel as one. Oftentimes when I make albums, I’ll have really different instrumentation and really different kinds of songs, and this album just is a little different in that greater consistency.”

“I didn’t think about being afraid” to follow in the other guitarists’ footsteps, he says. “To me it was just like fun because it was a little bit different. I was influenced just by being around all the great guitar players I’ve known over time, but I think that I have a sensibility where there was a reason why I liked certain kinds of guitar players. It sort of made sense to me. So I didn’t think too much about being in the shadow of other people. I don’t know what people will think about it, really, but I felt it really fit the album I wanted to make. There’s something satisfying about having the lead the way I hear the songs.”

Playing lead himself on an album is a fiftysomething dream come true, even if he’d been in no hurry in his previous dozen-plus solo albums. “You know, it’s funny,” he says. “When I was a teenager, I remember an actual specific day where I had this daydream in my brain about getting better at playing … I could never understand how people played lead guitar. To me, it was this incredible mystery. And I thought, I’ wonder if when I’m old, I’ll just be able to do it?’ And I felt like it was time to try the theory,” he laughs. “And it worked pretty well.”

Sweet didn’t need quarantining to develop a DIY aesthetic, the way so many have. “In a way, pandemic life isn’t that different than my normal life,” he admits. “I tend to be kind of shut in anyway. I love my wife, and to spend time with her — we’ve been married for going on 28 years next spring. But I’m kind of a homebody. So in a way, it’s not hugely different for me: I live in an internal world a lot. But it is interesting that the album fits so well with a lot of the sentiments that are out there about being unsure about life — being afraid of the hard parts, and hanging on dearly to the good parts. I mean, part of that’s just my age, but also, I think it fits the moment.”

The title of “Catspaw” was inspired by a 1967 episode of “Star Trek.” “One of the great things was there’s this giant black cat that’s terrorizing Spock and Kirk, and they built a little set where it looks like it’s giant and had it run through the little hallways,” he laughs. Although “cats’s paw” has different definitions as a phrase, “the definition that really fit for me is something that comes down hard and final in the manner of a cat’s paw — like, it will crush and end you. And I  thought, in life you’re kind of up against the cat’s paw.” 

It’s not surprising, then, to see the wide jaws of a potentially devouring feline on the cover. “I should preface all this by saying I’m a cat freak, though,” Sweet points out, “and I’ve used cats over my career. So it’s not an unknown concept to fans of mine. This is a celebration of that in a little different light than just loving cats, maybe as a metaphor for your fate. … But I’ve made bronze cats for a Kickstarter that I did. I’ll done cartoon drawings of myself with cats that sometimes I sell at shows. I had these pottery cats I used to make. And a pinnacle of my career was getting in Cat Fancy magazine,” he laughs.