Released 03/09/2012, on Matador Records
It's been six long years since Cat Power released the critically beloved The Greatest, her last album of original material, so Sun was always going to bear that weight. Compounded with the very public (in certain circles) relationship breakdown with actor Giovanni Ribisi, there is a fog of context over the album.
Power (Chan Marshall to her parents) is a veteran of the scene now, moving through the peak of alternative rock and indie in the early nineties, colliding with Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, who encouraged her to record her first album (Steve himself played on that debut, 1995's solid Dear Sir and the next year's follow-up, Myra Lee). But it wasn't until her third, 1996's aptly-titled What Would the Community Think (produced by Shelley) that she really hit her stride, leaping from "promising" to "fully-formed critical darling" with close to forty-eight minutes worth of masterful music, showcasing the kind of eclecticism we've now come to expect.
The end of the decade and the opening of the next saw an especially dark period for Power. Alcoholism and self-destruction lead to the requiring of psychiatric help in 2005. It comes with the territory, as an artist whose work has dealt in melancholia and the macabre for close to two decades, such themes can begin to seep from the professional into the personal life.
With Sun, however, Power undergoes something of a rebirth. Introducing more electronic elements to her one woman show (Power wrote, recorded and played nearly every instrument single-handedly), the move helps mark this as, well, her best album since her last one. Opener "Cherokee" boasts a catchy bridge and the kind of elegant songwriting she has become known for (I never knew pain, I never knew shame/ Now I know why). For an artist whose battles with depression and suicide have been so well documented, her plea of if I die before my time/ Bury me upside-down can be taken a number of ways: chiefly that, as an inverted burial was often seen as a posthumous punishment for those who committed suicide, perhaps she feels shame for her consideration of it. Such a dichotomy between music and words can leave you wondering if you should be feeling optimistic or reaching for the razor blades. Sonically, parts of the album bear comparison to The xx, as synths and guitar lie amidst seemingly vast spaces, an impressive change of pace for an artist who garnered such success with the Memphis Soul of her last LP. When the beat drops, for want of a better term, the result is virtually danceable (go listen to “3 Times” and try to picture a danceable Cat Power).
Lead single “Ruin” boasts a singalong list of holiday destinations, spots on the globe that Powers has been. She's been all over (her pronunciation of Great Britain is a highlight) and, with annoyance risks ran, the song manages to creep into the realms of decency thanks, in part, to Power's soulful voice and eloquent lyrics. Another upbeat track, Power seems glad to retire from her international sojourn to be back “in [her] town" – a bit like Bruce Springsteen in reverse, really. But she questions her pleasure at home comfort (what are we doing?/ We're sitting on a ruin runs the chorus) but, in the end, it's better the devil you know. It's a thought we've all had and Power knows that all too well. “369”, too, was clearly written from experience: eschewing the famous refrain of Shirley Ellis' “The Clapping Song”, the chorus of 3, 6, 9: you drank wine/ Monkey on your back, you feel just fine starts off catchy but is ground into your skull with deliberation, as the endless repetition takes you inside the brain of an alcoholic denying the effects of a hangover with a self-help mantra.
Really hitting its stride as it edges into the second half, “Manhattan” is classic Cat Power, an upbeat ode to what you can't be, as a simple melody of twinkling piano and a steady bass drum propel the expressionistic lyrics to something close to something you could hear on actual, proper, day-time radio. “Nothin but Time” is a veritable Power-ballad: I know this life seems never ending/ But you've got nothing but time/ And it's got nothin' on you is as upbeat a message as the now forty-year-old singer has ever presented. Iggy Pop (sounding eerily like a late-period Johnny Cash) makes his cameo presence on “Nothin but Time” feel like these are the really words of a survivor, for people who need saving.
An interesting album that rewards repeat listenings and implores the discovery of her back catalogue, Cat Power's Sun defies odds which could have been insurmountable for lesser artists, or lesser people for that matter. Coming out of her personal battles with more than just her health, Power sees a career revival with an album keyed to introspection and self-destruction but also self-discovery and hope.
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