Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cat Power: Sun (2012)



There's always been a strain of the catholic and the populist running through Chan Marshall's work, something that periodically made it easy for outsiders to brand her as the sort of quintessential singer-songwriter for the latte circuit during the decade we recently wrapped. Those with faith in her remain as dogged as Leonard Cohen and John Darnielle's acolytes because theirs was the privileged knowledge that the music on Marshall's albums as Cat Power was, however bold and interesting, incidental to her treatment of it. If her work is sparse and cold or if it's strange Tahitian rollerdisco, the spotlight remains on the drama inherent to her own writing and singing, much as Cohen can record nightclub music or Darnielle can work with metalheads and no one worries for a tenth of a second about the appeal of either being subverted.

Nevertheless, there's a disconcerting eagerness at the center of the first Cat Power album in a whopping six years, since the brilliant The Greatest. No question about it, Marshall makes a few eyebrow-raising decisions here and occasionally gives evidence that she felt little interest in decisions at all, resulting in an awkward kitchen-sink atmosphere and what sounds like, well, radio -- filtered through the sensibilities of a post-radio world. Sun might or might not be a deeply personal record for Marshall but its musical ambitions and quirks are front and center, and it's a Frankenstein creation that feels very much of its time. To a degree, this translates to a kind of breezy nostalgia: try divorcing yourself from listening for FM static when you hear the opening riff of "Peace and Love," a virtual replica of the meaty sonics in mid-1990s "modern rock"; try ignoring the corporate rock-ready artificial blues that persist through "Silent Machine"; and try ignoring how "3, 6, 9" lays its foundation upon the architecture of Hits, Hits from any era. Its stark rock-soul formula, complete with an Annie Lennox vibrancy in the singing, is note-perfect.

It's also one of many songs here that no one seems to have known how to conclude. Sun isn't all that long, but it is long-winded, and Marshall buries herself enough that one can speculate freely on motives. Did a lack of confidence create this? Or just guardedness? There's still challenging, torn-apart emotional fire here, but we must search it out. "Always on My Own" might well have been a Moon Pix chestnut if not for the sense that we're hearing it from a considerable distance, like something blared from the megaphone at a closed service station. Marshall wraps around its heavy drama, but it doesn't go much of anywhere -- you're really there to hear what she's doing, and there are roadblocks. Conversely, "Real Life" contains her most energetic, revealing, and broken vocals on the album, yet its production comes across as some freakish sort of riot grrl revision of Mr. Mister. In sum total, Sun means to be a forward-looking and modern record with a revealing new direction, but as much as it succeeds as a collection of fine and fine enough songs, stacked together it's more like a bare grasp at things to find something that works. That creates a sense of general sleepiness, and it's hard for strong material like "Human Being" -- spooky guitar, building drums, sultry lead and a trickily elevating, shifting backdrop -- to shine in the pile.

Marshall doesn't know where to hang her hat, and Sun is best when it cops to this problem. The first three songs are grab-bag pop that summarize everything to follow without becoming too overloaded. The piano that rolls crazily in from the left channel on opener "Cherokee" gives an edge to an oceanic intensity shaped and recast by Marshall, whose vocal is all cold focus and assurance -- she's back, as an instrument and accompaniment to herself. It's new and great, and it's weird, but not as weird as the title cut, a bizarre but endearing match of video-game jock jam with plodding funeral march -- it's here that the hard rock texture of Marshall's vocals, explored to good effect on past records, comes in handiest, and it's here that her exoticism is best applied to a quick and painlessly intriguing coda. The revolution? Well, something akin to joy on "Ruin," a pulse-pounder offset by Marshall's sly "bitchin' and "complainin'," delivered with pomp and tossed-off brilliance like she's just giving you directions.

Then she hits upon what could make a good record a great one: she strips away all the stylized business, and leaves us with sadness that towers on "Manhattan," which is one of the best songs she's ever written. Its unadorned loneliness, a pure sense of loss, is beautifully expressed ("All the friends that we used to know ain't coming back") and complemented by an arrangement that wheezes with a worn-down prettiness while keeping the clipped, quickened pace of the rest of Sun -- thus accidentally pointing up the major problems with the other songs. Marshall's directness here makes all the difference; as on past records, there's the feeling that we're sharing secrets here, an understanding of sorts, as though it's just her and the listener.

One more cut like that could have made the big difference and made this another major album in an illustrious career. What we get instead is the ten-minute "Nothin' But Time," a glamorously gloomy Iggy Pop joke the world didn't particularly need. It's an inexplicable lapse into a kind of self-parody that brings to mind nothing so much as the way the Rolling Stones used to close out their albums with singalong atrocities about "the hard-working people" and getting "what you need." Those were fine songs, in fact, but they were born of a different time whose separation from us is severely underlined by the unconvincing nature of this seemingly endless dirge, which Marshall is equipped neither to present nor to rescue.

But what of it? Is there any point in fanboy carping about a great singer-songwriter who continues to deserve our support? No, I doubt it; it's been so long since The Greatest that I feel fortunate that Cat Power is back and still bringing us new music, especially music as strong as "Manhattan" and "Ruin." If I confess that I could recommend this unreservedly without "Nothin' But Time," I hope it doesn't seem that I'm being a spoilsport. But in their two extremes, "Manhattan" and oh, sweet "Nothin'" illustrate the same basic problem with Sun: its musical venturing outward is oddly affected and insincere, something that wouldn't matter if there were evidence that Marshall was using it as a springboard rather than a filter. But the strange fixation with conventional rock histrionics that "Nothin'" toys with seems like proof that we caught Cat Power in a strange mood. Really, you know, maybe that's a privilege for us we should embrace.

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