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Cat Power - Sun

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Artist: Cat Power

Album: Sun

Label: Matador

Review date: Aug. 28, 2012

At this stage, what’s left to expect from a Cat Power album? Her persona has been scrutinized from every available vantage, and with each new album comes another opportunity to probe Chan Marshall’s supposedly fragile psyche. Rock loves its romantic geniuses and their redemption cycles, and has strange ways of justifying that obsession. We aren’t leering at someone’s difficulties with life; we’re watching them confer a special kind of dignity and triumph on the music they create. This makes Cat Power a unique kind of critics’ darling: Alongside the critical bluster, there’s a growing indifference toward the music. She’s always been an inconsistent songwriter, but only after Moon Pix were we expected to care about the duds. You Are Free and The Greatest are good records with some great tracks, but their boredom hasn’t really been addressed.

Indeed, features on Chan Marshall — which tend to focus on how she’s, in fact, not completely congruent with her myth but are secretly pleased that she has a myth in the first place — don’t evaluate her music as much as attempt to figure out how it came out of this somehow exceptionally damaged person. It’s unclear whether dating a Scientologist and being buds with Karl Lagerfeld damages that myth or bolsters it. Maybe she’s just trying to get away from the people who thought they owned her. But for the purposes of discussing her latest album, Sun, only a couple of things are relevant: It’s engineered, in a feature-article-friendly way, to embody its creator’s personal development and comment on it in a way that’s slick, weightless and easily disowned. For the first time in Marshall’s career, lighter equals better. One imagines that this casual quality might be a really subtle and satisfying “fuck you” to the people who wish to pathologize her.

Philippe Zdar of housey French duo Cassius mixed the album and helped Marshall on some tracks, but his contributions are subtle enough to be basically negligible. The hip-hop production values that come into play on opener “Cherokee” seem like they could be his, but then again, Cat Power has a couple moments of idiosyncratic rapping that are all hers so who knows. This might be a fresh start superficially, but otherwise it’s a Cat Power album in her usual inconsistent mold: There’s one transcendent song, a few very good ones, and a few whatever ones. The krauty “Manhattan” is Sun’s best moment, tapping into the same beginner’s mind that begat “Metal Heart” and “I Don’t Blame You.” It comes off like a double-exposed photograph, with multi-tracking used to bolster an arrangement and destabilize it at once, like it’s her indigenous form of dub. The song’s sentiment is hardly more complex than the title — talk of the moon, “your secret life,” the unfreighted way she delivers “you’ll never be Manhattan,” whatever that might mean. It’s genuinely moving in its simplicity and measuredness.

In other places, the album is breezy in an absent-minded way. The chorus of “3,6,9” is a little on the nose for Cat Power (“3, 6, 9, you drink wine / monkey on your back you feel just fine”) but at least the rocking surrounding isn’t canned; on “Real Life” it is, exacerbated by lyrics that sound like she’s dumbing down her bohemian brand for Cosmo readers. Cat Power drizzling the chorus “real life is ordinary...sometimes you gotta do what you don’t wanna do to get away with an unordinary life,” over squirmy bland electro-rock is a waste of the listener’s time.

But most of the rest of the time, it’s clear that Sun is a cut above most of her recent output. “Ruin” is sleazy disco-punk resurrected from 2005 with a catchy geographical rundown of a chorus. “Human Being” rolls back the tempo for a paradoxically defeated-sounding recital of Marshall’s version of Miranda rights. There is also the 11-minute “Nothin but Time,” which finds her copping the millennial poignancy of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” and feels like kind of a put-on. As on The Greatest, Marshall has found a stylistic device that gives her some room of her own among all the competing notions of who she is.

By Brandon Bussolini

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