Review Summary: Chan Marshall finds her way back from the ledge.
One listen to Sun
and you’d never know that here is an album that almost didn’t get made. “Bitchin’, complainin,’ when some people who ain’t got *** to eat / bitchin,’ moanin,’ so many people you know they got,” goes the lead-in to the chorus on first single “Ruin,” and that, of course, sounds just like Chan Marshall, but certainly not in this context. The sound is lush, a Glass-ian keyboard motif circling up around that ricocheting guitar line and a propulsive funk rhythm suitable to get lost in. “Cherokee,” too, reveling in some haunting electronic textures and that wonderful “whumpf” sound that accompanies Marshall’s pained entreaties to “bury me, marry me to the sky.” It’s unlike anything Cat Power has put to record in her long career, which has been as bleak as it has been impressive over twenty years. What Sun
does resemble, however, should be welcome news to any fans of her work: a new beginning.
Marshall’s last album of original material, 2006’s The Greatest
, was the perfect snapshot, a painstakingly rendered mosaic of ‘60s soul, gospel, and delta blues, mired in the sepia-toned pop of her Memphis childhood home. “Home” being a relevant term, of course; Marshall’s father was a traveling blues musician who moved his daughter all around the South with him. It’s something that permeates Marshall’s work even here, where traditional sing-a-long “3,6,9” tackles that old blues trope, the monkey on your back, in four quick, painful minutes. That monkey nearly derailed Marshall’s career after The Greatest
, leading to hospitalization and bankruptcy, and it’s that long road back that Sun
so succinctly details. Where The Greatest
seemed as grief-stricken and world-weary as its influences, Sun
is remarkably uptempo, utilizing her new affinity for electronic beats and bubbling atmospherics to great effect. Marshall has said in interviews that recording and producing the album almost entirely by herself helped her get away from the second guessing and encouraged her to try new things, the synthesizer in particular. It fits nicely with Marshall’s smoky, soulful voice, and her lyrics, which zip hopefully from the melancholy Native American imagery in opener “Cherokee” to climax “Nothin But Time.” Bloated as it is at nearly eleven minutes long and even featuring the patron saint of self-destruction, Iggy Pop, it never fails to soar, taking the record’s theme of inner peace to its logical, ringing conclusion.
Perhaps it took a while for Marshall to find herself, but Sun
is unerringly confident in its adventuring, even when it stumbles. “Peace and Love,” with Marshall in venomous confrontation mode, seems out of place after the triumphant “Nothin But Time,” and “Real Life” never develops much of a hook beyond its warped production. Yet Sun
remains, beyond a mere reaffirmation of Marshall’s renewed mental outlook, a fine endorsement of Cat Power’s often overlooked prowess as a songwriter and producer, embellishing the contours of each individual track while strengthening her own voice. “Manhattan” places the onus solely on Marshall’s lovely vocals, painting a desolate picture of New York City over a spartan beat and some jittery drum fills, while “Always On My Own’s” multi-tracked fog is appropriately eerie. Throughout it all, Marshall seems more intrepid than she has been in over a decade and in turn more inspired, without sacrificing any of that emotional immediacy she has been known for. It’s been a long road back, but Sun
is a rewarding return to a new Cat Power, one who seems more at ease with her music and herself than ever before. The greatest reward, though, will be seeing where she goes from here.