Album Review: Cat Power – Sun

[Matador; 2012]

I’ve never been one to complain when an artist feels the need to shake out the cobwebs, but Chan Marshall doesn’t seem to realize that the credibility an artist engenders from their fanbase can be withdrawn at a moment’s notice. (It’s been how many years since she released The Greatest) In the interim between The Greatest and her newest record, the better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be Sun, she released Jukebox, a half-baked (to varying degrees) covers album that did nothing more than make her fans turn to her older albums for their Cat Power fix. It was interesting to hear her versions of those songs but going six years between official studio albums and only releasing a forgettable set of covers–excluding the lone original track “Song to Bobby”–seems a bit counterproductive. It’s understandable that she’d want to release as much material to her fans as possible, but if the quality is less than stellar, all she’s doing is leaving them with a sour taste in their mouths.

Cat Power fans are so eager to hear her music that they’ll take whatever they can get their hands on; it doesn’t matter necessarily if it’s good or bad. As long as it is has the Cat Power brand, they’re going to listen. And so what we find on her latest offering is Marshal occupying a kind of middle ground where she tries very hard to please all her fans, while also trying her hand at a few new tricks. Unfortunately, her inclination towards musical exploration tends to trump the things that she does so well. It’s a frustratingly segmented experience and one that Marshall would do well to learn from.

That being said, Sun is not the vast disappointment that some have claimed, neither is it something innovative or an album that ranks among her best works. It is merely a decent-to-good Cat Power album, which itself is something that critics are not used to saying, The Covers Record and Jukebox notwithstanding. Moon Pix took her indie songstress persona to an entirely different level than it had been on previous records such as Myra Lee and What Would The Community Think. This is not to say that those records are flawed in any substantial way but Moon Pix seemed to be the culmination of her existing work and displayed a stronger, more self-assured version of Marshall. So why have some people, including myself, defended an album that bears little to no resemblance to her earlier work? It comes down to a conscious decision on the listener’s part to assume that Sun is the wildly erratic and thematically confused antecedent to another, better record from Marshall. It certainly plays that way.

But is that wishful thinking or a wildly speculative assumption on my part? I’m willing to extend my graces a little bit further than usual in regards to this album because it’s easy to see the inherent, though mostly unrealized, potential of these tracks, and what appears to lay ahead for her as an artist. Marshall has created an album steeped in intriguingly incoherent ideas and half-formed thoughts, which absolutely should not work but does, up to a point, through sheer force of will on her part. Even when she comes dangerously close to the indie M.O.R. trajectory of Danger Mouse-esque production choices, there are always flickers and hints that the old, reliably creative Marshall is in there somewhere.

As much an apologist review as this must seem, there is worth to Sun that goes beyond the casual Cat Power fan’s pre-existing goodwill. Opening track and lead single “Cherokee” tromps and stamps in an exaggerated fashion, enticing the listener by seeming to play precisely to Marshall’s strengths as a songwriter. The delicate piano deftly enhances her vocals, as she harmonizes with herself in the background. But then we hit the beat and it’s like a smack in the face. Artificial was never a word that I thought I’d use in describing a Cat Power song, but whatever muse she is following here will test her fans’ patience from the outset. I haven’t even mentioned the eagle caw that shrieks above the music later in the song. But even a flawed Cat Power song has a few shining moments and the piano and encircling harmonies laced throughout this track keep it from being a total failure.

In a turn of unfortunate sequencing, the follow-up track “Sun” does little to steer us clear of the mundane production of the first song. Again, we’re left with a beat that feels too close to the boring click tracks of so many rap wannabes and feels about as mismatched to her aesthetic as seems possible. Her voice still sounds as husky and wonderfully seductive as always, but what the hell she was thinking when she was working on the production end I’ll never know. A reprieve is granted as we get to “Ruin,” a piano-led rocker that feels much more in tune with her previous material, though the beat still feels a bit too polished. The drums hit harder and her voice echoes across the track as she finally shows that spark that her fans have become accustomed to hearing. And that bass is practically old-school funk, though it does seem an oddly appropriate fit for the song.

The further away from those first two tracks you get, the more that the old, reliable Cat Power spirit bubbles to the surface. It should come as no surprise then that the most successful tracks on Sun are the ones that hew closely to her already well-established oeuvre. Tracks like “Always On My Own” and stand-out “Nothin But Time” prove that she’s still capable of impressing through the casual ease with which she seems to effortlessly spin wildly imaginative and memorable songs from thin air. When these songs hit–and they do, just not as often as on past records–it’s a cause for celebration. She’s still with us, make no mistake about that. And is it just me, or does closer “Peace and Love” seem to eerily mimic Zeppelin’s “Kashmir?”

Despite its flaws, Sun is not a complete failure and does deserve to be mentioned alongside the rest of her work, if only for the comparison of how she once tried something different–a flawed but worthwhile attempt. This record will be easy to dismiss, even among her faithful fans. The mistakes are obvious, while the successes are often obscured and hard to reach. There is effort involved in getting to the heart of Sun. I’m just not sure most people will take the time to try. Which is a shame because once you’ve taken the time to realize that this record is a worthy, if not entirely successful, entry into her catalogue, you’re finally able to see that Chan Marshall has been there all along, watching you and smiling. You just have to know where to look.