That record – steeped as it was in rich, harmonic Delta blues and lush, pastoral meditations on life, love and loss – seemed sure to precede a major assault on a mainstream which had been largely passive toward her output since 1995’s ‘Dear Sir’.
Six years and one covers album (2008’s ‘Jukebox’) later, ‘Sun’ has been described by the singer as “a rebirth” and about “personal power and fulfillment.”
Written, recorded and produced entirely by Power herself, ‘Sun’ opens with ‘Cherokee’, which immediately evokes Interpol’s ‘Turn On The Bright Lights’ thanks to some stirring electronics and an urgent piano – but the very moment Chan Marshall’s voice is heard, it’s difficult to compare her to anyone else. The song pulses with energy and purpose as Power sings, “Bury me, marry me to the sky”, a line which may seem somewhat morbid in print but in song is transformed into a persuasive and utterly upbeat commandment.
The theme continues throughout the record – never has Cat Power sounded so fearless or controlled. On the synth-led ‘Sun’, a moody, industrial beat takes hold as the singer seems to tilt her gaze skyward, remarking, “This is the day people like me been waiting for,” while on lively lead single ‘Ruin’ she recounts her travels in an aggressive, trance-like verse, sketching memories of “Calcutta, Sowetto, Mozambique…” The song earns its tag as a single – the vocals are smooth as silk, the instrumentation on point, a dance-along vibe ground harshly into the millstone of lyrics like, “Bitchin’, complainin’ and some people ain’t got shit to eat.”
In the past Cat Power has sounded as world-weary as an octogenarian, but on ‘Sun’ she mostly seems willing to live in the moment. There are exceptions, however. The trippy ‘3,6,9’, despite its musical flourishes, has Power gridlocked in a bad place, “emotionally broke” and “head so heavy like a wastebasket.” Another lyrically downbeat verse is imbued with some sheen by dint of Power sounding as energized as she ever has: “3,6,9, you drink wine, monkey on your back, you feel just fine,” she rambles, nursery rhyme-style.
There are some missteps, too. ‘Always On My Own’ is meandering and directionless, too sparse and detached to really work, while ‘Manhattan’ suffers similar maladies, even if it’s lyrically charged.
One thing’s certain – ‘Sun’ is nothing like ‘The Greatest’; gone are the smoky, easy rhythms, replaced by cerebral electronic passages that sometimes, but not always, blunt Power’s affable romanticism. This is the case on ‘Real Life’, which sounds too soulless and robotic. The beat may suit a Lana Del Rey song, but the absence of an acoustic guitar really hampers Power here.
‘Human Being’ restores order – the singer’s voice has rarely sounded better than on this track, while the spidery acoustic guitar that plays underneath the drill-like electronics drives along compulsive statements like, “You got two hands, let’s go and make anything” or “Don’t nobody know where the road to life is lying.”
The crowning jewel of the record is undoubtedly ‘Nothin But Time’. If ever there’s been a song where Power has poured her heart out, it’s this one. While musically the tune is very simple (even if it is nearly 11 minutes long and begins like something from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind), Power’s spiritual vocals carry the day and the lyrics take on perhaps the deepest subject of all: how to live life. “You’ve not nothin’ but time and it ain’t got nothin on you” she sings, as a refrain of “You wanna live” is shouted back at her by the former patron saint of self-destruction, Iggy Pop. The song is a poem of sorts, recited to a child (perhaps to her younger self), and contains several striking lines, from “Never, never, ever give in” to “It’s up to you to be a superhero, it’s up to you to be like nobody.” While it could’ve been 7 minutes long and just as effective, you can’t hold it against Power for getting carried away while recording in her Malibu studio or at Motorbass in Paris, her recent bolthole.
‘Sun’ closes with ‘Peace And Love’, on which Chan archly observes that “It ain’t appropriate that I get stoked that I get 100,000 hits on the internet – that don’t mean shit even if you’re legitimate” over jangly guitar and repetitive cymbal. Though it’s a good track, one gets the impression the hypnotic ‘Nothin’ But Time‘ should have closed the album out.
‘Sun’ is certainly a new beginning for Cat Power; a beguiling album which sees her explore virgin territory on a quest for the “personal fulfilment” she craves.
Some will enjoy her discovery of synth-led electronics more than others, but the force, honesty and emotion she channels into these songs is never in doubt.