Chan Marshall, who has been performing as Cat Power since 1995, turned 40 last January, but she sounds more youthful and alive on Sun, her new album, than she ever has. In the past, she was known for her blues-folk approach to deeply personal and profoundly sad storytelling: her slow pianos and sparse guitars sobbed to slow beats, and her low, smoky voice could break hearts. Marshall was a kind of friendly barfly, an empathetic shoulder for the world-weary to cry on.
Of course, the reason Marshall’s songwriting hit so hard was because of how deeply rooted it was in her own tumultuous experience. Plagued with love problems, mental illness, and alcoholism, among a multitude of private struggles, Marshall translated her sorrow into her music.
The six years that preceded the release of Sun were particularly rough: bankruptcy, her public breakup with actor Giovanni Ribisi, and a mental
breakdown kept her from productive songwriting. There were doubts that Marshall would ever regain her feet and perform again.
Right out of the gate, Sun proves her critics wrong. It’s a complete and unashamed reinvention of her image and sound, complete with treated beats, synth flourishes, and energy to match. The first words we hear are chants of “It’s my way/It’s my way now,” and the screech of an eagle on opener “Cherokee” clearly announces the album’s attitude – this is a new Chan, finally free of the personal crises that kept her, and her music, effectively tethered to one spot.
This isn’t the first time an artist has gone electric; in fact, after Bob Dylan, Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens and the like, it seems more like a musical rite of passage for musicians who march to their own beat. Sun may not measure up to something like Kid A in terms of artistic achievement, but it’s a tremendous step forward for Marshall nonetheless.
For the first time in her career, Marshall played every instrument on the album, a risky move that is impeccably pulled off: the nuance of each sound is perfectly illustrated, and her personal artistry is preserved in a purer form. These days, she spends the majority of her time in Miami, and this new sound seems to draw from that city’s bright urban culture of cool as opposed to her folksier discography derived from her Atlanta roots. That’s not to say that there isn’t some crossover – in fact, the result is often irresistibly cool, as on “Silent Machine” where tough, grimy blues meets deep, chugging synth beats.
Occasionally, though, Marshall seems more interested in creating strange new noises with her new machines at the expense of interesting songwriting. There’s a noticeable sag in the middle of the set as the sparseness of tracks like “Always On My Own” and “Real Life” slow the power and momentum of the first four.
That said, almost nothing can match the force of Sun’s strongest tracks: the auto-tuned soul of “3, 6, 9” and starry-eyed atmosphere of “Manhattan” are incomparable. The clear centerpiece, though, is the 11-minute feel-good ballad “Nothin But Time,” written for Ribisi’s teenage daughter. It’s her “Impossible Soul,” a powerhouse of positivity engineered to put the weary back on their feet. There are few greater salves for sadness, I imagine, than Marshall and guest vocalist Iggy Pop shouting, “You wanna live!” in reckless unison.
That weighty track would be a superb closer, and it’s something of a surprise to hear the opening strums of “Peace and Love” after the fade. It’s a bouncing, hands-in-the-air slice of hip-hop, capping the album with the kind of cavalier bravura you would expect from a party-hard icon of the genre, not the meek, uncomfortable singer-songwriter persona that Marshall is often pegged with. Half-jokingly, Marshall stated that she wanted Jay-Z to do the vocals on that track, but her layered vocals suit the song just fine. In any case, it’s a definitive statement; an unhinged, unconcerned, knowingly goofy send-off, and a compulsively listenable one at that.
Sun could easily be called Marshall’s best album, or at least her most important. Devoted fans will admire the brighter sound as a reflection of her personal rebirth, and newcomers will find numerous pleasures in the soundscapes Marshall has on display here, perhaps more so than the crooning ballads of the past. Regardless of its appeal, though, Sun is, above all, the high point of a prolific career, and of a lifetime with so many lows.
Marshall and company will be kicking off a new North American tour in downtown Ithaca at the State Theatre on Oct. 18.