Chan Marshall’s career is not an easy one to characterize. In some ways it is a classic musician-coming-of-age story: daughter of a southern musician spends her childhood on the road; estranged from her mother she gets caught up in the hometown music scene; she moves to New York where she is influenced by the experimental atmosphere; her early material is rough and profound; she spends the next decade polishing her sound, becoming a fashion icon, going on hiatus, and embracing her motherhood. Based on this account, it is surprising there hasn’t been a hollywood film about her life (starring Jennifer Aniston in her most transformative role yet).
However, at the same time, this trite retelling of her life does nothing to capture the darker elements of Cat Power’s ascendancy. In 1999, a critic described her erratic live show as a rejection of “exultation, or of showing what one can do; in its place was outrageously passive aggressive behavior and non-musicianship.” Marshall suffered from severe alcoholism and underwent psychiatric treatment in 2005 after deciding that she “wanted to die.” Since then, however, she has found some peace; and as her brutal self-destruction starts to subside the tone of her music morphs accordingly. Sun feels like Cat Power heading in a new direction, as the title suggests, yet Marshal still relies on the poignant melancholy that has thus far defined her work.
Compared with the rest of Cat Power’s material, Sun may have the most distinct production style yet. Marshall, who has traditionally relied on a bluesy, organic sound, often opts for a more industrial rhythm section as well as sleek, electronic instrumentation. Don’t get me wrong, it is not as if Cat Power is turning into Depeche Mode; but it is clear that Marshall has found something she likes in the current electronic music scene (after all, she enlisted Nicolas Jarr for an excellent remix of “Cherokee”). Hints of Radiohead abound, and some tracks break down into distorted electronic fuzz. There are undoubtedly moments that feel more like traditional Cat Power – country twanged sing-alongs, brooding piano ballads, heart wrenching stories – but the uniqueness of Sun is undeniable.
Cat Power’s updated sound is bold and energetic, but in some instances notably uneven. “Cherokee” is the first introduction the listener has to the maturation of Marshall’s songwriting, and it does not disappoint. Her ability to convey emotion through her voice is as strong as ever yet “Cherokee”’s instrumentation stands in contrast to her morose tone. Especially during the chorus, one isn’t sure whether to feel uplifted or to reflect on the nature of death. This disparity is often captivating but it doesn’t always land. “Ruin” and “Real Life,” for example, sound like Marshall trying too hard to make progress in her sound. The latter’s synth line feels particularly misplaced, as it continually clashes with the rustic, humanism of Marshall’s voice. Sun is most affecting when it doesn’t make too grand a gesture and just lets the story unravel.
Sun hits its stride in the second half of the album with the momentous combination of “Manhattan” and “Nothin But Time.” The former laces a stark drum beat with a piano arrangement reminiscent of the opening to the Woody Allen classic that bears the name of the song (given Marshall’s meticulous nature I doubt it’s a coincidence). From there the track builds into a swirling, mysterious representation of an urban environment. “Nothin But Time,” which clocks in at over ten minutes long, might be as hopeful and triumphant as Cat Power has ever sounded. In a particularly prophetic moment, Marshall belts “they wanna live/ they wanna be somebody/ they wanna give/ and be wanted/ they want to forgive/ and not be forgotten/ they wanna reach the end/ they wanna live their way of livin.” As she sings this, Marshall sounds profoundly grateful that she now wants these things for herself as well.
On “Cherokee” Marshall sings “if I die before my time bury me upside down.” Historically, an upside down burial entailed a post-mortem punishment. Criminals or those that committed suicide were sometimes buried this way as a final scarlet letter – a final emblem of shame. Marshall clearly still looks back on her life with mixed emotions. Perhaps anger, guilt, and remorse intertwine with relief that things have now become better. Sun shows this slow transformation of her psyche. There are moments of intense grief coupled with passages of hope, joy, and even a sense of self-forgiveness. Marshall’s transformation has made her songwriting slightly less powerful but it has also added a new element to an already multi-faceted personality. As a window into an artist’s mind, which Cat Power has always been, Sun generally succeeds and it leaves you with the urge to revisit that mind time and again. [B]