- SPIN Rating:8 of 10
Chan Marshall insists that her ninth album isn't political, but in America in 2012, what's more politicized than the right to live as you please? Sun is hardly sloganeering, but its Power to the People ruminations are more potent and topical than you'd expect from a pop record — and certainly one made by Cat Power.
You'd think a polemic dispatch from the thick of a Koch Brothers-fuelled culture war might push one to new depths of emotional dispossession, but lo! Marshall instead loses some of her famous ethereal malaise and conjures vampy disdain instead. There is a power to it; it is empowered. Which pushes Sun away from the rest of her discography (Moon Pix, for example), in that Marshall now sounds engaged with the pain of the world, no longer a mere interpreter of her own misery. Even her most joyous album, 2006's The Greatest, seemed to amount to stylized pain with the doomed singer as a medium, a conduit harmed by that which she was divining. No one expected valedictory rebirth — 'specially her, as she now implies on opener "Cherokee." If her time here is cut short, it will be by her own hand, given her request to be buried upside-down, an 18th-century practice to prevent suicides from haunting the earth. Touching on her own mortality before she hits her album's second verse is the only typical Cat Power move Marshall makes here. But that life-or-death bit isn't morbidity so much as Real Talk.
Sun sheds the myopia inherent in depression; Marshall repeatedly insists that she's here, with us, and it feels like a revelation. It's a Mary J. Blige-like position of authority, self-assured and strong (the first line of "Cherokee" quotes the Missy Elliott-penned "Never Been," from Blige's No More Drama). What we get here is not so much a new Cat Power as the true Cat Power: She's been to the brink and emerged on the other side to share her testimony. Akin to her profligate Miami neighbor Rick Ross on his own latest, Marshall is showing us her consciousness, her empathy — though if her tears are there, they're on the inside.
No, this record is more about "you" and the collective "we," and on "Human Being," she attempts to shred the distance between "them" and "us": "See the people on TV / Get shot in their very own street / People just like you, people just like me." The album's denouement, "Nothing But Time," opens with a similar I-feel-you salvo:
I see you, kid, you got the weight on your mind
I see you're just trying to get by
But your world is just beginning
I know this life seems never-ending
Heart-heavy but with her hope still afloat, she affirms and names the kid's pain; it's a different kind of vulnerability than we're used to from her. Later, she sings, "Never never give up what you always wanted / Never ever give in," and the yous turn to Is. She caps the song ecstatically, bellowing "I wanna live!" alongside Iggy Pop; but nine songs in, she's already disabused us of any doubt.
Sun is a new trick for Marshall musically, as well: A tribute to her belief that contemporary R&B has the power to salve; the self-produced album's sound is closer to the street and further from the bedroom. There's still some guitar (her own lead on "Cherokee," a sample of Judah Bauer on "Ruin"), but the record is mostly driven by synths-and-beats slinkiness. This is Marshall's attempt to mimic the contemporary Top 40 hip-hop and soul she clearly loves. And though Sun is still probably best qualified as "indie," it possesses none of the shambling sonic modesty the word usually suggests. It's closer to Gaga than Grimes, but savvy in its pop allegiances.
Elsewhere, Sun's title track could work as a plot synopsis for Lars Von Trier's Melancholia; she follows that up with the album's one throwaway, "3,6,9," which is most notable for its Ying Yang Twins (via Shirley Ellis) quotation: The lyrical "monkey on my back" cliché is beneath her, and anyway, fans tend to over-marvel when an indie darling even acknowledges hip-hop, though Marshall's been a vocal proponent for years. (She's probably listening to some lesser DJ Khaled posse cut as you read this.)
Speaking of which, album closer "Peace and Love" has the same locomotive chug as Jay-Z's "99 Problems," but in trickle-time with minor chords. Her Hova-esque ambition suggests that she's harder than we think: "I'm a lover, but I'm in it to win," she crows, lest you mistake someone with nine albums as unmotivated. The quite perfect single "Ruin" builds on a house-y piano eight, then explodes into a disco Stones vamp: Finally, a Cat Power song you can dance to! Still, she also tacitly tackles first-world privilege, quasi-rapping (!) a range of far-flung locales she's visited — "Dhaka / Calcutta / Soweto / Mozambique / Istanbul" — over a swift 4/4 stomp, before returning to God Blessed America, where people are "bitchin', moaning" despite the fact that "some people ain't got shit to eat." It's the sort of sneering indictment you expect from M.I.A., not the woman who wrote the louche anthem "Lived in Bars."
But Sun's absolute standout is "Manhattan," a quiet meditation on the island's pre-9/11 meaning, with the Statue of Liberty framed as the metaphorical woman behind a successful man(hattan), a beacon of freedom that lures people from all over America (and the world) with the promise that you can be who you want to be. It's subtler than patriotism; the abstraction is a nostalgia for that old-fashioned American freedom (not the 2012 GOP's hijacked late-stage-capitalism-amok-in-your-pussy version), the sort that might entice a young girl to move up to New York from Georgia with just a lamp, a chair, and her guitar.
This is the album's heart, with Marshall cooing over a soft motorik beat, in thrall of the moon that hangs above the city: "Liberty / In the basement light / Free speech / Lipstick in the moonlight." It's liberty as we learned it in school: The chance to live the life of your secret dreams, unencumbered by who you were in another town, a different life, to come to this place where freedom is so free you can take it for granted. The song is full of sweetness and a knowing sadness, and it's one of the finest Marshall has ever written.
Recent Cat Power profiles and Sun reviews have taken pains to mention a break-up with a bold name that happened three years after this self-guided, self-recorded odyssey began; people have made assumptions, despite her insistence that Sun isn't a break-up album. (Said assumptions are forgivable, of course: Soft agony has been her idiom since the '90s.) But it's clear that her years spent bringing this record into the light — refining her drumming so she could sample it, building songs bit by bit, from the eagle drop on "Cherokee" to the tinny ching of castanets on "Peace and Love" — made her vision that much stronger.
Marshall has admitted she wept when someone at Matador told her the album's early demos sounded like "old, sad Cat Power." You can hear the fight to be understood, to show us not who she was, but who she is: a free woman in Miami, to misquote Joni Mitchell, unfettered and alive. Sun is a spirited violation of what we think we know about her, content to show us a different kind of discontent.