CAT POWER TAKES A WALK ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET FOR ALBUM NUMBER NINE
Story by Adam Steel
A stark drawing of the newly-coiffed Chan Marshall graces the cover of her ninth studio album, emblazoned with a streak of rainbow stretching from top right to bottom left. Metaphorically speaking, it is a perfect jacket for what lies beneath the vinyl grooves of the record contained within.
Chan Marshall isn’t the first extraordinary lady to cast herself against a blue backdrop, gazing longingly into the distance, averting her stare from the photographer’s lens. But where Joni Mitchell made her transition from joyous Ladies of the Canyon to the moody, introspective Blue, Chan Marshall does the complete opposite. Gone are the sad strings and lonely musings of 2006’s The Greatest—the album she wasn’t sure she’d live to see released—and in their place: harmony, sweet harmony. (Marshall’s 2008 covers record Jukebox ends with a minimalist interpretation of Mitchell’s “Blue.” Coincidence?)
After countless battles with alcoholism, rehab stints, and most recently, a break-up (with Giovanni Ribisi, who quickly married model Agyness Deyn), the 40 year-old Atlanta-native has managed to persevere, earning a unique reputation for her ability to soldier through the personal demons via introspective songwriting and a handful of indelible charms. For example, her appreciation for the songs of the South—particularly by bluesmen like Hank Williams, John Lee Hooker and Lee Clayton. Her fascination with the moon (“The Moon,” from The Greatest; 1998’s Moon Pix). The unusual covers, onstage and in-studio, like Liza Minnelli’s Kander & Ebb-penned “New York” and Aretha Franklin’s “It Ain’t Fair.”
For all that she has lived through, Chan Marshall is more than overdue for a “sunny side of the street” kind of record. Sun is not only that record, but it is an undisputed revelation and her best in almost ten years.
“Cherokee” starts the record off on a solid trail of rueful melancholy (“I never knew love like this / I never knew pain like this”), bolstered by a stark piano over steady guitar. Fortunately, this singular sad song sheds itself like snakeskin, completely dissolving into the proceeding ten tracks which feature, among other things, drum machines and vocoder, due in part to Philippe Zdar of French house duo Cassius, who worked (apparently, for free) as the album’s mixer.
Lead single “Ruin” will sound the most familiar to fans of Marshall’s earlier whiskey-soaked recordings, and is the only album track to feature longtime backing band The Dirty Delta Blues. “Nothing But Time” demonstrates her widest vocal range yet, scaling multiple octaves with ease, backed by a deadpan Iggy Pop, chiming “I wanna live, my way of living”—a common lyrical theme which is also repeated, verbatim, at the end of the poignant “Always On My Own.”
While some listeners will undoubtedly cry out for the smoky and soulful Cat Power of yesteryear, one thing demonstrated by Sun is that Marshall is too comfortable with her new sound: unguarded, polished and pronounced with nothing to prove except that she is still here, dammit! This time around, she is out in the daylight with a spring in her step, virtually brimming with confidence and joie de vive. And as longtime fans will surely attest to: it’s about time.
It’s no coincidence that Sun ends on “Peace and Love,” a spritely jingle that paints a pronounced horizon across the landscape of Marshall’s anything-but-ordinary life. Signing off with repeated chants of “I’m a lover but I’m in it to win” gives hope for a new-and-improved Southern belle. Here’s hoping she is still around for album number ten. It won’t be easy to top number nine.
Sun is in stores today.
Cat Power is playing in Toronto at Kool Haus on October 20, 2012.