A long time has elapsed since the last time Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, released a full album of original material. In fact, the American singer-songwriter has been missing in action since the release of 2006’s The Greatest, the critically acclaimed album that resulted in her becoming the first woman to win the Shortlist Music Prize.
In the intervening years, Power put together a new act, The Dirty Delta Blues, and released an album of covers called Jukebox in 2008. However, Cat Power now returns with her ninth studio album, entitled Sun, which was written, played, recorded and produced entirely by herself. Power has already called Sun ‘a rebirth’ and her new LP certainly features her rawest and most personal material to date.
The album opens with Cherokee, a song that could be interpreted and applied to many of Power’s more trying experiences during her life, as she sings: “I never knew love like this/ wind, moon, the earth and sky/ I never knew pain like this/ where everything dies.” The song’s haunting guitar and delicate piano are intoxicating, while the compelling beat suggests a sense of optimism and strength. It’s both a mesmerising opener from Power and an early statement of intent.
The album’s lead single, Ruin, is just as good – if not better – with a piano loop that will stay stuck in your head for days. Power’s purring vocals, combined with a propulsive beat and funky guitar hook, add to a feeling that she has picked herself up after going through bankruptcy and the end of a relationship in recent years. Then there’s the authoritative strum of 3,6,9, where Power reverts to an almost pop-like chorus (“3,6,9 you drink wine/ monkey on your back/ you feel just fine”). Yet, the message remains the same.
Sun is by no means a confessional album, but it undoubtedly demonstrates a progression in Power’s psyche – as well as musically. And the musical side of Power’s development becomes clearer as the album reaches the half-way point. The eerie Human Being revolves around Power’s hushed vocals, but the quaint, slowly-picked guitar and rumbling beat give it a sinister edge. Meanwhile, the repetitive electronic beat and solitary keys of Manhattan and the fantastically engaging chaos of Silent Machine are far removed from the blissful tones of The Greatest.
However, there are some missteps along the way. The 11-minute epic Nothing But Time – which features a deep-throated vocal cameo from Iggy Pop – does drag very quickly. The repetitive piano and wheezing synths may provide the perfect bedding for Power to sing about the strength of the human spirit, but they become grating way before the guest spot from Iggy Pop. Always On My Own is another song that disrupts the flow of the album, with the sparse production sounding almost Warpaint-esque.
There is do doubt, though, that this is the return that many Cat Power fans were hoping for. Sun is an album that conveys the full spectrum of emotions, but at the same time it manages to never sound convoluted or patched together. Despite a couple of tracks not necessarily living up to the standard of the rest of the LP, Sun is right up there with Cat Power’s best work. It may take more than one listen for some of the subtleties to become apparent, but Power has created an album that shows her abilities as a songwriter and her willingness to take risks. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another six years for the follow-up.