Studio trickery and a turn from intense life coach Iggy Pop
To say that Cat Power’s ninth album gets off to a bleak start would be a little bit of an exaggeration. Sure, when alt-folk firebrand Chan Marshall utters “I never knew pain like this/When everything dies” over the snowballing trip-folk of ‘Cherokee’ like Beth Orton double-dropping capsules of St John’s Wort, it’s not the most heart-lifting of sentiments. But among the shuffling breakbeats, the afterglow of a love she puts on a par with “the wind, the moon, the earth, the sky” burns bright. It’s full-on stuff. But who the hell goes to Cat Power for wishy-washy sentiment and half-baked emotion?
It’s not just feelings that are pushed to the limit on ‘Sun’. Five years in the making, it sits in stark contrast to 2008’s loungey covers collection ‘Jukebox’ and the reclining Memphis strings and horns of 2006’s ‘The Greatest’, as Marshall wrings everything she possibly can out of the studio. Here the mixing desk is an instrument as indispensable as her Marlboro-whittled purr. While it isn’t quite Dylan-going-electric, indie purists might still take umbrage at Marshall’s evolution, notably the ‘Telstar’-style synths and multi-tracked vocals on the sci-fi skiffle of the title track. It seems like there are five of her singing on ‘Sun’, while the layered chorus on sly Southern rocker ‘Silent Machine’ creates an enveloping kind of distortion. At times things seem a touch over-produced – something that’s always a risk when you spend half a decade working on 11 tracks.
But mostly, Marshall’s thickly layered studio shenanigans make ‘Sun’ shine. Trickling piano, throbbing drums and melodic inertia turn ‘Ruin’ into an organic funk masterpiece, while ‘Peace And Love’ – a Kills-esque slab of raw garage with lyrics that pitch hippie idealism against self-preservation – is intensely steamy. She strips things back on ‘Human Being’, resting the weight of the song on grand lyrical themes instead of extravagant sonics, while ‘Manhattan’ hosts a rhythmic, key-led energy, as if Regina Spektor were pacing empty corridors in the Hotel Chelsea.
The 11-minute-long ‘Nothin But Time’ pitches itself as the focal point of the album, a wash of pulsating Primal Scream psychedelics. She’s been through some heavy shit, from battles with alcoholism to mental breakdowns and stints in rehab, so it’s no surprise that she’s decided an inspirational epic is in order. Marshall hollers, “Never give away your body… never ever give in”, telling the listener they can be a “superhero” while guest backing vocalist Iggy Pop barks in the background like the world’s most intense life coach.
It’s empowering. Life-affirming. And just some of many words of wisdom on ‘Sun’ to come from the mouth of wise auntie Chan.