Enduring and erratic usually don’t work together. The two actually compete. That is unless, of course, you’re Cat Power (née Chan Marshall). The critics’ darling has sustained a 17-year career by releasing mostly decent albums while simultaneously delivering mostly terrible live performances that have often devolved into false starts and shambling mutterings. No matter. Cat Power released the hip hop and dance-infused (that’s right) Sun six years after her soul-and-blues affair The Greatest. The long gap does make sense though, what with Chan Marshall’s long struggles with alcoholism, drugs, and depression that culminated in her checking herself into a hospital shortly after the release of The Greatest. Afterward, Chan said she experienced writer’s block but was also enjoying a “normal life” in a serious relationship and with being a step-mom. Unfortunately, that union ended abruptly.
Many have assumed that Sun is a breakup album. Not so fast. Cat Power insists she finished the record a few months before her four-year relationship with the actor Giovanni Ribisi ended. (He married the model Agyness Deyn two months later.) It’s easy to get confused, though. The first track, “Cherokee,” opens with “Never knew love like this/ The wind, the moon, the earth, the sky/ Sky so high/ Never knew pain like this/ Everything dies, then die.” Like many Cat Power songs, “Cherokee” starts with sparse drum beats, simple guitar lines, and quick piano notes. But as you get lulled into familiar territory, synth chugs jolt you. Then there’s the whistling in the middle of the track, similar to what you’d hear in those Native American peace pipes. Somehow, it all fits.
Sun weaves modest piano and guitar lines with dance beats and subtle hip-hop grooves. Cat Power says she played every instrument herself — minus a couple drum beats. She repeatedly asks “whose side are you on?” over the rolling synths and rat-a-tat beats of the title track. Her Phoebe Snow-esque raspy vocals are kept mostly intact, save for the blatant Auto-Tune and vocoders in the cheesy “3,6,9.” A cartoonish voice sings “3,6,9/ you drink wine/ fuck you on your bed/ you feel just fine” in the chorus. Fortunately, Cat Power uses other vocal tricks to good effect. The booming yet fragile “Always on My Own” whispers intermittently “I was always on my own” underneath the main lyrics. The two best tracks, the beautiful, finger-picked Spanish guitar of “Human Being” and icy piano chords and skittering beats of “Manhattan,” sit side-by-side. To keep us on our toes, “Silent Machine” follows with machine-gun sounds over the lyrics, “silent machine is here to meet ya.” Switching again, the beautiful “Nothin’ but Time” saunters afterward. The nearly 11-minute track is an affecting ode to being strong in the face of adversity and malaise. (Chan Marshall allegedly wrote the song for Ribisi’s young teenage daughter.) Iggy Pop, of all people, harmonizes halfway in with Cat Power to sing “It’s up to you to be a superhero/ it’s up to you to be like nobody/ your world is just beginning.” Did Cat Power wish to end Sun with that song’s subtle beauty? Nah. She gets her rap on (yep) in the final track “Peace and Love.” The seemingly cringe-worthy song is actually a great commentary on modern celebrity. Cat Power raps “It ain’t appropriate that/ I’m stoked that I get/ a hundred-thousand hits on the Internet/ but that don’t mean a shit/ even if you’re legitimate.”
It doesn’t matter. Cat Power’s career will likely endure while continuing to be erratic.
Cat Power: www.catpowermusic.com