It’s been six years since Chan Marshall, the identity behind Cat Power, has put out an album full of original music. She returns with Sun, full of uplifting songs marking a radical change in sound and possibly becoming one of her greatest albums ever. Her last release of original material 2006′s brilliant The Greatest, was another beautiful reemergence for Marshall. After recovering from a series of nervous breakdowns caused by constant touring and the unfortunate crippling realities that come with such a lifestyle, she was able to bounce back and embark on a supporting tour that had critics claiming that indie-rocks Queen of pout was back. The album itself is a collection of soulful songs and slow ballads all pieced together perfectly blending classic rhythm and blues with Marshall’s sultry voice and confessional lyrics. Songs such as “Living Proof”, “Willie”, and “Islands” showcase the versatility yet common theme of the album. A little help from Al Green’s former guitar player Teenie Hodges didn’t hurt either.
The Memphis-soul sound that was born on that record inspired Marshall to form The Dirty Delta Blues band for her next album, another collection of covers called Jukebox. I always liked the way Cat Power performed and arranged cover songs (see also 2000′s The Covers Record) her take on Frank Sinatra’s “New York” or Hank Williams “Rambling Man” are such vast departures from the originals; she never sings the same melody. And she’s not afraid to tackle classics like Dylan’s “I Believe In You” or Joni Mitchells “Blue” and rework them until they become hers. But, then she crept away for six years, five of them spent developing a life off of the road and building a relationship with her then boyfriend, actor Giovanni Ribisi. In 2011 it was announced that the couple was splitting up and Sun began to take form.
The first thing you’ll notice as a listener is the sound of the songs, from them being more upbeat to incorporating an element of electronic music. From her very first album up to her most recent before Sun, Marshall’s sound has evolved from stripped down guitar/vocals to full traditional band to where she is now and she’s made all of them work. As opposed to The Greatest, Sun features driving rhythms in songs such as “Ruin” and “Silent Machine” always showcasing Marshall’s excellent ability as a vocalist. But this time around we get to experience Cat Power the musician, as she played all the instruments on this album herself and even takes producing credit with the only sole additional credit going to Philippe Zdar for mixing. In an interview with Spin she said, “I challenged myself to do something I knew I had to do.” Is this her breakup record? Maybe, but it’s more a shedding of layers. She’s still able to sound like Cat Power if not better than ever. “Real Life” has her embracing her electronic counterparts, synth and all. “Manhattan” is a classic Cat Power song and yet still manages to fit right in on this album. The first track, the desert dream like “Cherokee”, begins with the lyrics “Never knew love like this/the wind, moon, the earth, the sky” and then takes the listener on a journey through the elements and not through heartbreak. Perhaps the albums greatest moment lies with “Nothing But Time”, a grand crescendo of a song clocking in at just under 11 minutes featuring Iggy Pop providing backing vocals and both of them repeating the mantra “Your world is just beginning”.
It’s important for artists to have periods of rebirth, sometimes it’s a reflection of what’s going on in their personal life and sometimes it’s what just feels right. Whatever the case may be it is a great catalyst for creation. Sun is a fantastic record showcasing how Chan Marshall was able to take the trends of popular music and, just like her cover songs, weave them into her own vocabulary. The album is due out September 4th and you can stream it in it’s entirety over at NPR.
Catch her live at the Boston House of Blues on October 24th and be sure to grab your seats here.