Cat Power – Sun

Cat Power


On Sun, the ninth studio album of Cat Power’s esteemed recording career and first in more than four years, Chan Marshall takes a bold singular vision, a ferocious propensity to make strong music on her terms, a heart burst wide open, and a wealth of damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don’t risks executed with consummate grace and an uncanny ear for what unequivocally works.

Having evolved throughout her career through varying strains of raw and deeply emotive singer-songwriter rock with heavy folk DNA, Marshall has always been a boiling pot of influences. From her free-form jazz introduction in the early ‘90s that bled into Dear Sir and Myra Lee, to the devastating beauty and minimalism of The Covers Record, to the intensely masterful You Are Free, and through the pristinely realized Memphis Soul elegance of The Greatest, Marshall has never segregated styles or sounds.

In a recent Pitchfork profile in the days leading up to Sun’s release, Marshall spoke of her longstanding fondness for songs rooted in American tradition that are admirably co-opted  across generations and achieve immortality and resonance in public domain. The most commanding signifiers of the supreme excellence of Cat Power music are that Marshall’s songs are not only stirring, haunting, or inexplicably exquisite, but they achieve transcendence through timelessness. Take your pick of songs from What Would the Community Think, The Covers Record, You Are Free, you name it; you’re deceiving yourself if believe those songs feel any less relevant than they did in 1996, 2000, or 2003. Cat Power’s songs aren’t stripped of weight or beauty with the passing of time.

The first thing you’ll notice within seconds of putting on Cat Power’s first record in four years is Chan has leapt into 2012 with her whole heart and soul to embrace innovations in electronic music. You’ll also be acutely aware that she never sacrificed any shred of her lyrical depth or unparalleled ability to make the personal relatable. Waves of early analyses of Sun have alluded to Cat Power lifting a load and enjoying herself on record. Many refer to the album’s title as an undeniable indicator of Marshall’s triumph over years of Cat Power’s oft-cited trials onstage and her hardships in her personal life. While the perception of newfound ease in the world at large is not without justification based on the sound of a few of Sun’s songs, it is also far from the complete truth.

Every part of Marshall’s being bleeds from every nook, cranny and wondrous sound of Sun’s eleven accomplished songs. Chan wrote every word, played every instrument, engineered all but “three small beats,” and self-produced the entirety of Sun. It’s a wholly singular work brought to life with passionate urgency and feels miraculously distant from belabored for having been a project of love and strife for the majority of six years. In that time span, she played several songs from the new record and was immediately criticized for sounding depressing like old Cat Power (Some say by a Matador executive, but Chan told Consequence of Sound it was her big brother who made the criticism “not out of disrespect… but out of concern.”), and she was repeatedly advised to hire a producer.

Marshall held her ground in the face of consuming doubt, and her formidable will is etched all over the record it produced. Sun is the product of an immensely talented woman standing up to naysayers, second-guessers, authority figures with unilateral worldviews, and those resistant to necessary change. Sun is a now 40-year-old Marshall with a commanding sense of all she loves, all she has lost, and everything she needs to make for a life that she knows firsthand.

Those who spend all their time wondering what Marshall has been up to in the six years since The Greatest and four since Jukebox are likely the same ones with claws sharpened and ready to strike upon hearing rumors of Cat Power gone electronic, complete with Autotune, sampling and the lack of anybody stepping in to edit her or oversee the production. The blogosphere attention span is shorter than ever and allegiance in the community of critics is as rare as a voice as deeply soulful and expressive as Chan Marshall’s. An unexplained several-year disappearance is worthy of imprisonment in the military, divorce and a shitload of alimony in a marriage, and career extinction in the music world. The only means of surviving in one piece is to triumphantly return with something vital to say and to do so in a way that even your biggest critics can’t deny it. Chan has convincingly pulled off every bit of that feat with Sun.

This is an evolved Chan who has grown up and gotten stronger, but she hasn’t been stripped an inch of soul or willingness to dive headfirst into risk. She hasn’t abandoned the piano or guitar, although she admittedly extricated herself from relying on either during her hiatus. She worked tirelessly on her drumming so she could play the parts on her own and prodigiously sample them on the record. Not only has her writing not suffered; her lyrics are sharper and more effective than ever before.

At its heart, Sun is a protest record without being outright political. She hasn’t abandoned her inner demons which have always fueled the pain and truth of her greatest songs; instead, she is stronger than ever at taking her perceptions and offering them up as a collective criticism. She invites the listener to saddle up right beside her and see the world around her as she sees it now. Though Sun is not as photosynthetic as others may have you believe; it’s a far cry from a morose album. Chalk that up to Chan’s faithful adoration of soul, hip-hop and R&B along with her Americana and rock roots. Take her devotion to all those influences and breed them with her obstinate desire to make her music on her terms. Chan seems dead-set on allowing you do three simultaneous things (three essential things music can provide the human condition) when you experience Sun: move your body, use your head, and feel something deep in your heart.

As the first minute of “Cherokee” opens the album, you won’t instinctively notice the sea change in sound Chan has brought to Sun. You will definitely register her impressive drumming, a familiar and instantly loveable piano melody, and the undeniable warmth up front, but you won’t be completely thrown into uncharted waters until after she’s dropped classic Cat Power lines like “I never knew pain like this / where everything dies.” Seconds later, Marshall ups the ante by offering her words up to a wondrous spectrum of sounds on the shoulders of a skittering rhythm and ecstatic dance beats. She colors the production with a community of sounds, ranging from delicious layers of synth, fast handclaps, military march drumming, and the squawk of a soaring eagle. If that sounds like a mess, it’s the farthest thing from it. That production adventurousness is all over Sun, and Chan deserves the fullest credit for making one of the freshest sounding records in memory, irrespective of genre.

Though many point to the opening line of “Here comes the sun” in the title track as proof of how much Chan has lightened up for her ninth album, the wallop of a beat that precedes the line and blends with the pulsating electronica to form an apocalyptic aura make it obvious that the four words spoken here don’t hold quite the same meaning as they did when George sang them on Abbey Road. Truth be told, “Sun” has the distinct feeling of a rapture anthem more than a splendor in the grass sort of ditty.  Marshall goes on to sing “here it comes in all its burning / here it comes / its splitting the bone / here it comes /we’re all so tired of waiting / whose side are you on?”

“Ruin” is an unabashed dance song, riding a piano line and a thumping beat, that finds Chan name-dropping more than a dozen countries she has vistied on either side of the Prime Meridian and Equator before wrapping it up with “all the way back home to my town.” That’s the spot where the single-mindedness and naivety go down: “bitichin, complaining, and some people ain’t got shit to eat.” Only a musician as daring and ungodly talented as Cat Power can turn that line into one of the hookiest choruses of the year.

Speaking of hooks, “3, 6, 9” chronicles Chan’s hardships of with lines like “head so heavy like a wastebasket / I feel choke / emotionally broke” and coming to terms with a love where she’s like “a steamboat runnin / I need to float.” It’s around this point that she breaks into the addictive chorus of “3, 6, 9 / you drink wine / monkey on your back / you feel just fine” with a giddy playground beat and rallying cry fervor.

“Real Life” sets the scene with a preacher who wants to be sinister, a sister who wants to meet her maker, and a poet who wants to be a joke before Chan delivers the deceptively simple and poignant wisdom of “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.” She follows this up with the reminder that “you gotta right to be whatcha want and where you wanna be / you gotta right to believe / to breathe / you gotta right / you’re a human being” on “Human Being.”

One of the most tremendous songs on an album that’s nearly flawless front-to-back is “Manhattan,” Marshall’s ode to Man(hattan) and the useful woman by its side (the Statue of Liberty). The sublime grace of the song is made even more prominent with Marshall’s reflections of a beloved city how it once was and how it may sadly never be again. It’s a veiled protest song with a wealth of elegance, and (like most great protest songs) the unbridled love in the yearning always transcends the anger, whether subdued or explicit.

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The showpiece of Sun is the unspeakably gorgeous 11-minute “Nothin But Time,” an ode to a young girl tucked in her room. She faces the trials and tribulations of a menacing world at large, but more so the everyday demons just outside her person that can stunt individuality and muzzle self-worth, should a voice of unconditional love not step in provide necessary light. Marshall is the source of that light here, and you can’t help but believe she’s consoling deep facets of herself that we’ve seen throughout the years, as well as to the original inspiration of the song (Marshall wrote the song for the 14-year-old daughter of her famous ex-boyfriend, with whom she was in a five-year relationship leading up to the recording of Sun, and the words were Marshall’s attempt with helping the young girl face the devils of constant bullying.). “Nothin But Time” is a naked homage to David Bowie’s “Heroes” with a patiently resplendent delivery. Coupled with the assistance of Iggy Pop’s sturdy baritone (jarring on first listen, impeccable on every successive listen) and lines as deeply moving as “your world is just beginning and I know this life seems never ending / but you’ve got nothin but time / and it ain’t got nothin on you,” it’s a glorious ballad of otherworldly power.

“Silent Machine” and “Peace and Love” are both hugely enjoying testaments that Cat Power can brandish bountiful musical firepower whenever she damn well pleases. The former rollicks on stellar blues guitar riffs set against a crunching beat and a driving tempo, while the latter is a loud, scathing but dance-floor-ready gem that’s tips the scales in favor of hip-hop. It’s on “Peace and Love,” more than anywhere else, that you are aware Philippe Zdar (Beastie Boys) mixed Sun. The song is also a ringing endorsement of Chan Marshall’s production genius on the record. She raps Dylanesque zingers like “constitution’s fine if we choose the school so our kids know who’s spinning the globe” alongside seeming nonsense like “can’t go lala with the fafa and the rara / gotta go ditty with dada for nada” over top of a menacing, ecstatic beat worthy of Jay-Z. The song soars on its ingenuity because you never get the impression Chan overplayed her hand. The beat suits her, the inexplicable gibberish suits her, and the sharp lines like “choosin Black Flag was like choosin a race / they had a name for us/ we was despicable” suit her. What suits Chan most of all though is her coup de grâce of a chorus: “peace and love was a famous generation / I may be a lover, but I’m in it to win it.”

Those are the sort of words a stubborn, brilliant woman says after she’s second-guessed, written off and told she needs a producer. Sometimes, that woman triumphantly resurrects herself, towers above the masses and achieves greatness. That’s precisely what Cat Power has done with Sun. She has kissed off the naysayers, dug deep, and bashed out one of the best records in recent memory on the strength of her own laurels.

Take a bow, Chan. You’re winning it.

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