Here it comes, Here comes the Sun…
Whether by design or accident, Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) opens the title track of her newest album with a phrase from one of the Beatles’ most optimistic and life affirming songs. Oddly enough the song was written at time when the band was at its least collaborative and in the process of dissolution. Whereas Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” communicates a sense of possibility and promise with a carefree melody, Cat Power’s “Sun” has a rougher and grittier tone, the soundtrack to a time that appears far more complicated, difficult to decipher, and filled with more questions than answers. If there is one pervasive element throughout Cat Power’s Sun, it is that Marshall is looking at the world with mature and critical eyes, but not offering any idealized solutions or sugarcoated truths. In fact, she takes herself (and us?) to task on “Ruin”: “bitchin’ complaining and some people ain’t got shit to eat.”
If you are familiar with Cat Power, then this sort of biting, introspective, and matter of fact tone isn’t new and is probably the reason you love her music. However, this version of Cat Power has gotten away from the lo-fi, stripped down songs of her youth, her unique brand of plaintive indie-hippie folk rock. Sun might alienate many of her original fans; at least those that are still around after her blues laden gem The Greatest. (Or, some might suggest she has gone a little too “pop”.) I for one think Cat Power just keeps getting better. I was late to the game on her. I didn’t start listening to her music until You Are Free, which already marked a far more polished and produced sound from say Moon Pix – the record most will argue is her best. Although she has moved away from the “simplicity” of these records, she hasn’t lost the essence of what makes Chan Marshall so alluring: her spellbinding vocals and her bare-all, journal-esque lyrical flair. Listening to her albums makes you feel like you “know her” and understand where she is coming from.
In an odd way Sun reminds a great deal of an album by another set of musicians from Georgia, Automatic For the People by R.E.M., a band who also broke from the original sound that defined them to explore a broader and more eclectic musical palette. Automatic wasn’t the album that redefined R.E.M. The transformation began with Green and continued in Out of Time, but really reached its zenith in Automatic. Along the way, the boys from Athens lost a lot of their early fans and “indie-cred” for going away from their jangle pop and roots rock origins. Yet, in the process, their material became richer, more layered and more diverse. Whereas a record like Life’s Rich Pageant was brilliant for its idiosyncrasy, Automatic‘s power is manifested in the universality of its themes and emotions. Sun has a similar grandiose and more inclusive feel. Whether expressing the feeling of wanting to escape one’s chosen career/path and/or life in general on “Real Life” or the feeling of resentment and frustration when you are kept from realizing your dreams and desire on “Human Being”, Cat Power returns to her raw narrative style with a wiser and more all-inclusive and non-judgmental perspective, acknowledging that life can be dull and ordinary and expostulating on the all-too-common inability to recognize the suffering that exists outside our insular worlds. In other words, she is putting things into perspective.
But aside from her songwriting, it’s the musical departure and adventuresome nature of Sun that really floors me. Incorporating more electronic and synthetic elements into her sound, Sun is filled with a plethora of loops, layers, and programmed sounds that will definitely raise a purist’s eyebrow. I find the new direction a revelation. At times it feels like you are entering a different world, a sort of shamanic journey into a more enlightened space. The opening three tracks each evoke non-Western musical motifs and moods. “Ruin” is easily the most “rockin'” track Marshall has ever composed. But, she’ll then shift gears completely by penning the Orwell 1984-esque robotic moods of “3,6,9” and “Silent Machine.” Some numbers revisit the dreamy and existential quality of past Cat Power tracks, such as the gorgeously hypnotic, “Manhattan.” The track I adore the most, “Nothin But Time”, finds Cat Power doing what she does best: storytelling. This ten minute (!?!) song finds Marshall telling a young girl that she has the ability to make of her life, the world, and herself, whatever she wants. (Oh and adding Iggy Pop’s deep voice at the end as a vocal juxtaposition doesn’t hurt.) Despite the weight and often darker themes of Sun, Cat Power seems optimistic about the future and about our/the individual’s power to redefine the world at large: This is the day people like me been waiting for.
Cat Power’s Sun speaks to me on many levels and feels in keeping with where I am in my life: exploring and questioning – “I wanna hear every answer to every question“. Also I find Cat Power’s willingness to constantly reinvent herself as an artist exciting and inspiring. In the past year, I’ve been drawn to music/records that were “taking risks”, creatively challenging or aesthetically messy over the pristine and polished. Personally, I think Cat Power has put together a collection of songs difficult to pigeonhole or characterize and she pulls it off brilliantlybut why take my word …
Listen here to Sun in its entirety.
Unfamiliar with Cat Power? Then see below for her other work (not exhaustive).