Sun - MATADOR
FILTER Grade: 86%
By Kyle Lemmon; photo by Stefano Giovannini on September 4, 2012
Chan Marshall’s guise as Cat Power has been separated by an obfuscating curtain during her mottled second decade as a singer-songwriter. Public drunkenness, mental health issues, melodic ennui or dreadful cover albums besieged even her most polished labors. She tried to remold herself as a soul singer without the throatiness of the true greats and employed Memphis-styled R & B session players for 2006’s The Greatest. That album worked well, but the releases that stylistic shift birthed (2008’s second covers record Jukebox and its accompanying EP, 2009’s Dark End of the Street) were flaccid genre exercises.
Fast-forward to 2012 and most of Marshall’s struggles are in the rearview mirror. Her long-belated ninth album, Sun, is being vended as a phoenix narrative of sorts and this time the press releases are absolutely correct. Marshall’s bleakest lyrical inclinations are still being wrung out over her piano, but the misery is shot through with multi-colored specks of ’80s detritus; her emotional flotsam and jetsam this time out are a botched relationship with actor Giovanni Ribisi and the deferred irritations of finally breaking out of her soul-and-Delta-blues straightjacket. The itinerant, minimal guitar of earlier releases (most notably on 1996’s What Would the Community Think and Myra Lee) is chiefly eschewed for evocative drum machines, synths and angelic chimes.
Choosing Cassius synthpop musician Philippe Zdar to mix Sun was a sagacious decision. The Parisian lends a heat and grind to these emotionally hollowed-out tracks. He often tethers Marshall’s floating vocals to a grounded riff, beat or earworm of a melody. Zdar’s time producing Phoenix and Chromeo and remixing Air and Daft Punk shines through on hard-hitting pseudo-electro tracks such as “Silent Machine” and “Ruin.” The latter proves to be a wonderful preview single with its ringing piano hook and travelogue lyrics.
Opening track “Cherokee” is a convivial bridge from Cat Power’s more alternative-rock albums of the mid ’00s. The sky-bound piano line and curling electric guitar dance around her wafting vocals before a glitching beat. Marshall’s fatalistic lyrics about marrying herself to the sky may remind cinephiles of Charlie Sheen’s iconic helmet slogan in Platoon: “When I die, bury me upside-down, so the world can kiss my ass.” “Cherokee” and the album it introduces are not as barbed as that line, though, especially with the song’s oddly comedic use of a sampled eagle screech. Most of the songs here are synthetic embraces instead of sullen-yet-beautiful shrugs. “Sun” is carried along by modern R & B vocals and factory-inspired beats. “3,6,9” is dance-y and electrified, calling off “memories of what you can’t seem to let go.” Such a nostalgic tack is an alluring fixation—unless Marshall gets lost within her new stylistic experiment.
The eight-minute epic “Nothing But Time” features a vocal cameo by Iggy Pop that is assured, but by the end of the song, most of its initial energy and inertia are sapped. On the other hand, “Silent Machine” recalls solid mid ’70s rock and “Manhattan” is a luminous paean to a wanderer’s life. The album reaches its terminus with “Peace and Love,” a revelatory and unrefined rock anthem injected with a clear-cut slogan: “Peace and love is a famous generation / I’m a lover, but I’m in it to win.” Consider Sun the start of Cat Power’s new musical life.