[4 September 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Chan Marshall career to this point has been built equally on the power of her music and the allure of her mythology. She is the unpredictable performer, the woman with the saddest of the sad songs, the one that will turn her back on the audience or storm out of a show. She’s also the woman who, on record, sounds hurt without being beaten, broken without losing strength. Her songs are raw nerve and hurt and wide-open anguish mixed with an irrepressible romantic streak. She’s also the woman who drank too much, who got so stressed she started hearing voices and ended up in a psych ward.
These last details, so true and so personal, are done a disservice by being mashed into the myth we’ve created around Marshall and her work as Cat Power. With her new album, Sun, her first material since 2008’s cover album Jukebox, it’s not that we necessarily need to know those specific facts about Marshall. But this album is, without a doubt, the sound of someone who has emerged on the other side of something. It shakes off the shadowy dirges of her early work, or even the bittersweet gauze of 2006’s The Greatest, recorded with a menagerie of Memphis music legends. What we have on Sun is purely Chan Marshall—literally, she plays everything here—and the songs feel a good deal lighter, both in weight and wattage (note that album title).
It’s not a hard-scrabble survival record so much as it is a record meant to convey capital-P Perspective. This is both a blessing and curse. It is a delight to hear Marshall sounding so free on these recordings, even stretched out within these songs rather than coiling up and writhing in them. Still, the perspective she means to convey here seems a bit too big picture at times here, a bit too general, even rote. “Ruin”, built on that bright, clean piano riff, is a hazy pop tune, as catchy as Marshall gets, but it’s also a travelogue with a flat resolution. She recounts having been to far-off places—Saudi Arabia, Mozambique (a nod, perhaps, to Dylan), Calcutta, etc.—but she always returns to “my town”. The problem, we find when she gets there is that people are, “bitching, complaining / when people ain’t got shit to eat.” It’s a point well taken, but it’s also a huge cliché, and if the point is taken it’s also one we’re already familiar with. It doesn’t feel like a shared, personal experience, it just sounds like a ham-handed lesson in keeping things in perspective. “Human Beings” has a similar effect, with its run of “we all” lines and “people just like you, people just like me” getting “shot in their very own street.”
These moments and others—like the list of people not quite living their dreams in “Real Life”—feel anonymous, never quite tied to the close detail Marshall has been so adroit as using in the past. It’s not that these moments don’t feel personal to her, it’s that they don’t really feel personal at all, to anyone. And so, at times, Sun struggles with its positivity, as maybe it should, but it does find its footing on a strong second half and we start to see Marshall’s place in all of this positive thinking. “Always on My Own” doesn’t bemoan isolation, but rather embraces it. “I want to live my way of living,” she claims, and she feels wholly at ease in the spacious echo of the song. “Silent Machine” is a confident, even swaggering, blues number that finds Marshall vamping her way with charming sneer through a city of “sinners”.
“Nothing But Time” is the best track here, and captures all of Sun‘s elements in the best light. The song runs for nearly 11 minutes, and it’s a much more personal way to talk about starting over. “I know this life seems neverending,” she tells a kid. “But you ain’t got nothing but time, and it ain’t got nothing on you.” It’s an interesting turn, where time is not in control, but rather you are, to make what you will of that time, and you see Marshall doing just that in a stretched out, blissful tune of clanging piano chords and soaring atmospherics around her doubled-up, deeply beautiful vocals. As if to drive the point home that you can, indeed, beat time, Iggy Pop himself shows up for backing vocals late in the song. If the song doesn’t quite bed down in personal details, it still feels far fresher than other moments of enlightenment here, the contentment and peace of the song feels deeply personal to Marshall, hard earned and even harder to pass on. It’s a brilliant moment, one that lifts up the rest of the record around it, and creates space for the excellent, and more playful, hip-hop-tinged closer that finds Marshall winking at us a bit, when she smirks out “I’m a lover but I’m in it to win it.”
The best sign of Marshall’s progress to know, to see where she’s come, may be in the music herself. This is just her playing, but this is the most deeply layered and intricate music of her career. You can feel lessons learned from the players on You Are Free and The Greatest and elsewhere, and those lessons give her the confidence to shift from the gauzy guitars of “Cherokee” to skronky blues of “Silent Machine” to ambient electro-pop of the title track to bright blippy keyboard sweetness of “Manhattan”. If the lyrics imply having reached some destination, real or philosophical, then the music itself is constantly traveling to new places, seeking out new territory. With Marshall alone, there are moments that may feel self-indulgent—see the eagle scream on “Cherokee”—but these moments add charm more than they detract. Sun is a fascinating if uneven record, one that manages to somehow lack sonic cohesion and yet feel like a satisfying whole. In the end, it’s less about learning from the past than it is about leaving all that behind. Sun is about what comes next, even if the music itself never offers a clear hint on what that is for Marshall. We don’t need to know that yet, and neither does she. She ain’t got nothing but time, after all, and she takes it with Sun, which—even with its missteps—is her most patient and generous record to date. So much for turning her back on the audience.