Writing is about myth making. Taking the true aspects of yourself and defining them so clearly that they become you. Marginal personality tics explode into full character traits, sadness becomes a vehicle for personal exploration, happiness, when you can pull it off, becomes euphoric.
Chan Marshall, as Cat Power, is great at this sort of storytelling. By using very real moments in her life as a platform, she’s able to make music that transcends the world she occupies. She writes sadness as a vehicle for life change, drinking as a solution to nothing, relationships as spiritual awakenings, breakups as cataclysms that lead to different spiritual awakenings. Everything is about process.
Though each of her albums attacks these subjects from different angles — The Greatest is thick and woozy and very adult, even as she’s writing about living in bars (there’s literally a song called “Lived in Bars”) and being unable to let go of the people she loves, her most recent, Sun is full of thin galloping drum machines. It feels fractured, tortured, but it comes from a wise place.
Moon Pix is still her weirdest, most fucked up album in a long line of weird, fucked up albums. It’s from the earlier part of her career, and it feels like she’s living something torturous rather than writing about the memory of it.
Marshall worked with Dirty Three drummer Jim White, who attacks his kit like he’s stumbling drunk into it. It’s an album that is as dreary as it is hopeful — which, actually, isn’t very hopeful. There’s something to it that feels not quite real. It’s something that I’ve tried to put my finger on for years and only recently figured out.
Where most sad albums come from a point of reflection, Moon Pix is foreboding. Nothing’s happened yet, but it’s going to. It’s all oncoming dread. Pre-emptive defeat permeates Marshall’s voice, which goes hoarse and reedy and then seethes throaty across White’s very human drumwork.
In a recent interview around the release of Sun, Marshall talked about the period between 1996’s What Would The Community Think and 1998’s Moon Pix, when she was living in a rented house in South Carolina. While there, she wrote a series of songs that eventually became Moon Pix.
“And one night, I don’t even know what the fuck happened, but hell came to get me again. It was in a dream. I wrote these songs [that became Moon Pix] that night, waiting for the sun to rise, because my house was surrounded by 150 trillion spirits pressing against my glass, trying to get in. It was fucked up and really horrifying. The songs were just like evidence.”
As much as it’s not worth glorifying personal pain, which is something that happens often and falls into the murky zone between a call for help and indulging darkness– Marshall is so direct here. Spirits were trying to get into her ramshackle house. This is stated as fact. What happens when what you believe and what is actually happening become inseparable? Were there actually spirits pressing against her home, pushing her to write such a troubled album? All reason says no, not at all. But if Marshall believed it, and to excise those demons she needed to make this record, then it becomes true. It’s a moment that is just hers, and the fact that she was able to take that moment and stretch it across such a moody album means a lot.
It’s that willful bending of reality that’s always made Marshall such a force. It makes her albums real. When she’s viewed as an unstable artist it’s often because of her honesty — musically, with herself, in the press — and her utter unwillingness to be anything but what she is in that exact moment.
There’s a song called “Say” that comes halfway through Moon Pix. It’s spare, barely more than a guitar uncoiling itself around her weary voice. There’s also, bizarrely, some rolling thunder that comes in just slightly off beat.
My memory of “Say” is listening to it on repeat at the beginning of last summer, wandering around Fire Island at dusk. The island is narrow and cars aren’t allowed for a good portion of the year. There’s one central cement path with divergent boardwalks and sandy trails to the beach. Walking along that cement path as tree branches bent crooked toward me, I listened to “Say.” It’s ultimately an awkward song. Marshall sings “what defeats people is a double confession,” and then, as if she realizes that that doesn’t mean a whole lot without some explaining: “one time they will confess one thing and the next they will confess … something else.” The thunder cracks across the song, bursting.
That dusk walk was beautiful. It wasn’t cloudy. It wasn’t cold. But in my memory, the sky grayed and the thunder came. The song and reality collided, and now my memory’s become something completely different than the reality. What’s more real now? What actually happened or the way I remember it?