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.