Cat Power - Sun

If you’re an indie rock fan of a certain vintage, then the phrase “Cat Power breakup record” might inspire a certain dread in your heart. You might have uncomfortable memories of watching Chan Marshall only barely gutting her way through solo performances, hiding behind her hair, sheepishly stuttering between songs, while the audience made encouraging noises at her on like supportive parents watching a preschool play. You might remember wondering how many of those audience members were vampirically hoping that she’d flame out, which she sometimes did onstage. You probably remember hearing “I Don’t Blame You” for the first time and thinking to yourself that this was a notoriously squirmy performer empathizing with Kurt Cobain for deciding to blow his own head off. You might also remember her touring behind The Greatest, whooping and laughing and tossing her hair and generally acting the way people do when sobriety grants them a new lease on life. If you remember all that stuff, then you probably don’t want to see Marshall backslide into depression again, even if you really like the music she was making when she was depressed and unsober. So I’m very happy to report that Marshall wasn’t fucking around when she called her new album Sun; it’s easily the happiest and rosiest album she’s ever recorded. We can all relax. She’s OK. Oh, and she just made a really fucking good album.

Marshall has always presented as a precarious human being, and if we’re being honest, that was always a big part of her appeal. She’s got this otherworldly alto moan that sounds like it’s being beamed from the bottom of a broken heart, and on her early albums, she gave us that voice spare and almost unadorned. On You Are Free, her music got sharper and bolder, but there was still a central brokenness to it. People made Bonnie Raitt jokes when The Greatest came out, but it was still a revelation to hear her unencumbered by all that stuff, going all-in on Southern soul and having fun with it. And if the blues covers albums that came next were a long way from being her best work, it was still a joy to see her try on rock-star clothes. If anyone had ever earned that, she had. And now, six years after her last album of new music, here’s Sun — recorded, at great personal financial expense, in a newly built home studio, with a French dance-pop boss helping out. It comes in the wake of Marshall’s breakup with Giovanni Ribisi, but listening to the thing, that seems entirely incidental. Because the whole thing comes out sounding like one bright, shiny sigh of contentment.

Sun is Marshall’s attempt at making pop music — 2012 pop music, not 1965 pop music, which is sort of what The Greatest was. That’s not to say she’s gone full LFMAO or anything, but the album still sounds like her own personal take on Z100 sounds. On “3,6,9,” I’m pretty sure she quotes the Ying Yang Twins’ part of Lil Jon’s “Get Low,” and then repeats it over and over, like a koan. She spends album closer “Peace And Love” rapping, after a fashion: “100,000 hits on the internet / But that don’t mean sheeeeeit.” We hear guitars on every track, but they coexist alongside bright, twinkling synths and drum-machine baps. She doesn’t shy away from Auto-Tune, and if I’m hearing her right, she spends one song outro cooing “fuck meeeee” robotically. Marshall produced the entire album herself, but she recorded some of it with Phillipe Zdar, the French dance producer and Cassius member who’s lately done great work with Phoenix and Cut Copy, and Zdar mixed the album. Together, they’ve arrived at some deep, instinctive halfway point between their respective aesthetics. We’re a long way from the click-track on “American Flag.”

These flirtations with pop music should be awkward, and they certainly are on paper, but they work — mostly because it doesn’t feel like some planned-out genre-move but like Marshall organically figuring out a new way to sing the things she wants to sing. Her voice still sounds like the natural wonder that it is, and it still fills up space even when the music around her is the very opposite of her old sparseness. As an artistic decision, it reminds me a bit of Kanye West on 808s & Heartbreak, abandoning rapping and finding an entirely new emotional place by throwing himself completely into frigid synthetic textures. But that album found Kanye in full psychotic-break mode, and Sun is just the opposite. These songs would still work beautifully if it was just Marshall and her acoustic guitar, but it’s taken her an entire career to sound as assured as she does on this tracks, and she’s not letting that confidence go to waste.

The centerpiece of the album, and its greatest song by a huge margin, is “Nothin But Time,” an absolute monolith of an 11-minute song that Marshall wrote for Ribisi’s teenage daughter. Over metronomic synths and pianos that start out sounding like the “All My Friends” intro and build from there, Marshall sings breathy, heartfelt big-sister advice: “Never give away your body, never give away your friends, never give away what you always wanted, never ever give in… it’s up to you to be a superhero.” Iggy Pop shows up, lending his playful god-croak of a voice to the background and playing the same role, basically, that Bruce Springsteen played on Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle.” It’s an absolutely gorgeous and life-affirming piece of music, maybe the best thing she’s ever written, something that I want to play on a loop for my daughter while she’s asleep for the next 10 years. And — sorry to keep doing armchair psychology here, but the whole Cat Power narrative makes it almost impossible — I can’t help but imagine that, as much as she’s singing to Ribisi’s daughter, she’s also singing to her younger self, in an it-gets-better sort of way.

The first time I saw Cat Power live, it was 12 or 13 years ago at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, and it was just excruciating. Over and over between songs, she apologized: “This is the most boring show ever, sorry everybody.” At one point, some joker yelled, “You need pyrotechnics!” (This was pre-Great White.) Marshall responded, “I need Technotronic.” The crowd tittered politely, the way indie rock crowds do, but her line didn’t make any sense at all. If the makers of the 1989 hip-house smash “Pump Up The Jam” had burst through the club doors, they wouldn’t have helped anything. If Chan Marshall had gotten her booty on the floor that night, she would not have made Ya Kid K’s day. But now, all these years later, Marshall’s made her own Technotronic album — or, that is, her own intensely personal version of one, which still sounds like a Cat Power album. And it’s fucking awesome.

Sun is out 9/4 on Matador.

Comments (57)
  1. Oh my god, where can I hear this?

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    • First of all, it’s quite possible to be a Christian AND have personal issues. True spirituality doesn’t remove of all one’s problems like a magic wand; it just adds a sense of depth and purpose to one’s existence. Second, it’s been several years since Chan Marshall declared herself physically and mentally healthy in a long interview with Magnet (sometime in 2007 I think), and I have not seen or heard anything to indicate otherwise. She turned in a charming and flawless performance when I saw her in Seattle in October of 2010.

      • To clarify how I am disagreeing with you on the first point, what I am saying is that true spirituality and interest in humanitarian activity are not necessarily band-aid solutions for underlying personal problems. You can be pessimistic about the world even if you think there is an order and purpose for the universe’s existence.

      • Am I missing something? Who said anything about being a Christian?

        • I suppose this is a positive thing; some people aren’t even bothering to read Michael_’s posts anymore. Here is part of it:

          More like using her humanitarian interests to fill the voids of her emotional issues or something. Kind of like people who claim to have found Jesus or what have you — Something to give them purpose without really fixing their more important personal issues.)

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          • My life is not amazing, but it’s alright. As for the downvoting, I would advise you to keep looking for the perpetrator. You said that this person was downvoting all of your posts in the week leading up to last Friday. The fact is, even though I have pretty routinely downvoted your posts in the “Shut Up” comments section (especially the long ones), that is the only place recently, up until today (cause, c’mon, you were really asking for it today), where I have made a habit of doing so. In fact, last week I hardly did anything at all on here. I also only have this username and the “mhann24″ one. So while I took great pleasure in hearing that someone else is sick to death of your posts, I am not the mysterious serial downvoter.

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          • Actually… I think you misunderstood what he was saying… he was using people who “found Jesus” as an example of those who have unresolved personal issues. Yet you are arguing with him saying people can be Christian and have personal issues…

          • Nathan, honestly…the reason for my followup post was because I figured someone would read my first one and say what you just said. Michael_ seemed to be suggesting that, in other words, there are no TRULY spiritual people or TRUE humanitarian idealists, just pathetic people deluding themselves with pointless ideologies that function as mere distractions, lame coping mechanisms. Everyone has some personal problems, which vary in quantity and scope throught life; that’s a given. However, my point was that it is possible for a sincere belief in some form of spirituality and/or humanitarianism (i.e., one that emerges out of desire for self-discovery and a profound sense of the interconnectedness of living things rather than self-delusion) to coexist independently with one’s given set of personal problems. I also objected to the notion that one’s worldview would necessarily be sunnier if one was the sort of person who professed a belief in spirituality and/or humanitarianism because that misguided notion reflects a misunderstanding of spirituality and humanitarian ideals as exclusively being coping mechanisms.

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          • Michael_, I’m sure you don’t know what I mean. Some time ago, I came to realize that you are not all that intelligent, which is why I do not respond to most of the ignorant things you say on here. Just so you know though, ” a tangent that escapes my initial comment” is poor phrasing.

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          • FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!

          • Michael Hanna looks a lot like Silent Bob, and Silent Bob’s wifey is hotter than my girlfriend

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          • Can Michael_ be banned from this site now? He wants it. A lot of us want it. Let’s make it happen!

            Look, Michael_: if you think that being downvoted is a great injustice and that you don’t deserve it, you should probably re-evaluate your life and your priorities. Write your own blog. Be happy there. And show all of stereogum how much better you are by succeeding. But coming on here and being the biggest cunt in the world isn’t going to get people to like you. And all you want is for people to like you (clearly). So just do that. The greatest revenge is living well? Is that the phrase?

            And I’ll keep downvoting you because most of what your write on here is shit. I don’t want a micro-blog of yours in comment form (your end of the week wrap up). I don’t care about your porn and wrestling gifs. And you’ve been a huge dick to me. So yeah – because you hate down voting so much I’m going to down vote you. Because I’m the worst person in the world! Muahahahahahahhahaha!

            Fuck off. XOXOX

          • Don’t you dare ever, EVER imply I have low hotness standards.
            The picture of her that I tried to post in my blank comment is waaaay better than the one you put up.
            My girlfriend is at least 3 times hotter and 2 times shorter than her in your picture.

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        • Holy shit you use a lot of syllables Hanna…

          • Ha, I’ll take that as a compliment. Well, it’s a better compliment than the unexpected Kevin Smith comparison above. I mean, he’s definitely a cool guy and everything, but as long as we are considering appearance, I deserve some credit for being in relatively good shape. There are other bearded people with glasses, you know…

  3. i find this record delightful. completely agree with Tom, Nothin But Time is one of the best tracks of the year.

  4. Such an incredibly solid album… And you’re 100% on point about “Nothin’ But Time” being quite possibly the best track she’s ever done.

  5. it feels so good to put this record with my own favorites of the year so far

    i knew she could do it

  6. I don’t suppose any of you would be kind enough to let the less savvy of us know where we might be able to hear “Nothin’ But Time”?

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  8. Eh, it’s not The Greatest…

  9. Im not sure about this. Seems very AOR to me and the “electro” beats sounds dated. even a bit boring ( yes2 go and downvote me for having an opinion).

    maybe another listen on along drive this weekend will change my perception.

  10. Are we gonna get a Premature Evaluation of the new Swans album? It’s a monster, if you’ve got 2 hours to spare.

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    • new swans will rule.

  11. Cat Power should have stayed in her hole because all this music is quite awful unless you are tone deaf.

  12. miss u metal heart

  13. LFMAO…seriously, Stereogum?

  14. Cat Power…ACTIVATE!

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