Review of Cat Power’s “Sun”

Chan Marshall has always been a bit of an enigma, but with every album she releases as Cat Power, the undeniably talented singer-songwriter from Georgia reveals just a little more, satisfying fans while retaining her alluring mystique.

My love of Cat Power all started when Marshall burst out of the alternative music backwaters in 1998 with the now-classic Moon Pix. Best exemplified through the track “Metal Heart” (it was later reworked for her 2008 disc Jukebox), Moon Pix was Cat Power’s fourth disc and a particularly beautiful and atmospheric collection that showcased her signature vocals and emotional range.

The dark character on display throughout Moon Pix seemed to mesh with her on-stage persona, too, which has been variously described to me as “awkward”, or in the case of a relative who attended a Cat Power performance, “painful.” Sometimes attributed to alcohol, mental health issues, or straight-up stagefright, Marshall’s reputation for on-stage rambling and abruptly ending shows appeared a projection of her authenticity: she was as dark, fragile, and unpredictable as her music.

Cat Power’s later releases muddied the waters, though. After an LP of covers in 2000, Marshall released the excellent You Are Free in 2003. The disc featured vocals from Eddie Vedder and drums by Dave Grohl, and is as good a counterpoint to Moon Pix as you can get–think more Feist than Tori Amos.

Tending towards straight pop, songs like “He War” approached the vagaries of life and love with the benefits of guitar hooks and sing-song vocals. Though You Are Free was a fantastic LP, more accessible and somehow more intimate feeling than Moon Pix, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking Marshall was hiding her true temperament behind one meant for stardom and public consumption.

And maybe it was a bit of a mask too, because from there things went off the rails. Following 2006’s The Greatest (not a greatest hits album, by the way), Marshall was apparently drowning in debt and facing down some personal demons. Not surprisingly, these experiences influenced her songwriting, but she ultimately discarded the sullen tracks she wrote during this period in favour of bankruptcy and a multi-year hiatus.

Though billed by the drama-hungry mainstream media as a breakup album (Marshall had been linked to actor Giovanni Ribisi for years, but that ended when he suddenly married another woman a few months back), a few listens of the deceptively named Sun reveals broader themes at play. The title points to lightness, and the album’s cover might feature a photo of Marshall with her new post-breakup pixie hairdo, but the lyrics often stray beyond the personal odes to love and loss into social commentary.

For example, the cool-mavens at Pitchfork may have interpreted the lead single “Ruin” as a travelogue, blithely concluding that “If you pay attention, your hometown often has the best ruins,” but I can’t see the song as anything other than a public commentary on Marshall’s fellow Americans.

Sure, she recites the long list of places she’s visited in a staccato riff, beginning with Saudi Arabia and ending “back home, to my town,” but this is not a Fodor’s travel guide put to a bouncing piano-backed rhythm. Instead, Marshall draws a harsh comparison:

“Bitching, complaining when some ṗeople who ain’t got shit to eat / Bitching, moaning, so many people you know they got.”

“What are we doing?” Marshall asks aloud. The answer?  “We’re sitting on a ruin.”

Cheery this ain’t, but the buoyant melodies and snazzy production techniques often obscure the moody orientation.

And so it continues on the track “Real Life,” with Marshall contending that “Real Life is ordinary, sometimes you don’t wanna live / sometimes you gotta do what you don’t wanna do / to get away with an unordinary life.”

On “3,6,9” as bouncy and catchy a tune as any on Sun, Marshall addresses “feeling alone” and “emotionally broke,” and quite openly hints at her longstanding troubles with alcoholism.

But I don’t mean to scare you off of Sun. In fact, it may be Cat Power’s best album to date and features a number of rousing tracks, like “Peace and Love” and the aforementioned “Ruin” that will leave you more energized than spent.

Others, like the impossibly pretty “Nothin But Time” (featuring Iggy Pop’s rich bellows) are punctuated by sweeping synths, upbeat piano, and waves of Marshall’s densely layered, soulful vocals.

“They want to live,” she sings on that tune, “They want to be somebody / They want to give / They want to be wanted”

Pretty universal stuff, I’d say.

But don’t take my word for it: check out Sun in all its glory on the National Public Radio’s First Listens website where it will be streaming until the album hits store on September 4th.

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