By Andrew Seaton
Would Elliott Smith’s records be as poignant if it hadn’t been for his depression? Would Mark Oliver Everett’s early discography be the same if he hadn’t experienced the family traumas that permeate Eels discography? Of course, a good album is never worth mental illness or a drug problem. Nonetheless, while somewhat trite to state it, the tribulations of an artist’s personal life always affect their creative output. This correlation is amply displayed with Sun, the new release from Cat Power (Chan Marshall).
Marshall has previously been characterised for her smoky melancholic vocals, driven by a persona that has propped up many a bar, framed by alcohol abuse and relationship breakdowns. Sun marks a real change from this, Marshall now in a ‘much more positive space’ has cast off her older style. Those searching for continuations of The Greatest will be disappointed.
Instead, what we have is an ambitious effort that is happier, danceable and spiky. The whole album has been written and performed by Marshall alone. In that respect it is both a personable achievement and again represents a change of method. Layered drum machines, synth-loops, and vocals occasionally voiced in an electronic style have replaced the violins or piano previously performed by band-mates. Sun has a slight eighties feel to it. The first single ‘Ruin’ has a Latin piano throughout and in its early stages you can faintly detect Kate Bush.
Standout tracks include the opener ‘Cherokee’, again with a sophisticated piano melody that follows muzzy guitars. ‘3, 6, 9’ is strong and closer to R&B in its sympathies. Some of Marshall’s darker side comes though in the chorus – ‘3, 6, 9/ You drink wine/Monkey on your back/You feel just fine’ – indeed, in this sense Sun is more of a shift for Marshall instrumentally than it is lyrically. The album slightly runs out of steam towards the end, particularly ‘Nothin But Time’, which at nearly eleven minutes is just a bit too long.
Despite this occasional unevenness, Sun is an admirable detour for Marshall. The shift has been orchestrated well enough to result in an appealing album that deserves more than a few listens. Guiltily though, you can’t help but selfishly yearn a tiny bit for Cat Power to go back to her bluesy past, as this was always her at her most beautiful.