There’s nothing more satisfying than receiving a new album by an artist you thought you knew, only to be challenged and eventually, won over by their latest musical excursion. That’s what Cat Power has done on her latest…the first batch of new songs since 2006’s The Greatest.
While The Greatest found Chan Marshall tapping into the r&b sounds of Memphis and the Hi rhythm section, Sun is a completely different kettle of fish. Almost all of the music created here was played or programmed by Cat herself, and much of it was created on drum machines, beat boxes and synths. Members of her Dirty Delta Blues Band (Dirty Three drummer Jim White and guitarist Judah Bauer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) appear on just one track, while Iggy Pop makes a brief cameo appearance on another.
The result of Cat Power’s new musical direction is fresh, engaging and, surprisingly considering her past work, uplifting.
The 40-year-old artist has been through a lot since The Greatest…mental illness, bankruptcy, writers’ block, alcoholism and a four-year-long relationship with actor Giovanni Ribisi that ended in March (a few months later he married a supermodel. Power was close to Ribisi’s teenage daughter Lucia, who gets a special thanks credit on the record along with Iggy.
Cat Power has had a long history of unstable performances and a fragile temperament (I witnessed an on-stage meltdown of hers in Texas back in 2004), so this could have turned into a miserable collection of songs that wallowed in self-pity. But just the opposite is the case.
The opening track, Cherokee, comes as something of a shock simply because of the unexpected electronic-based music. Lyrically, it’s quite dark, as if the singer was easing us into her new musical personae. She sings, “If I die before my time, bury me upside down.” Disturbing, yes, but not unusual for anyone familiar with the Cat Power of old.
The title track follows with more drum machines and synths as Cat sings, “Here comes the sun” amid the Radiohead-type electronic skittering. Power builds a multi-layered vocal track, the melody is beautiful and it’s clear that this is going to be a very pleasant musical experience.
Ruin, the one track with other musicians, is next, although it sounds very much in line with the previous tracks. It features a gently pulsing dance beat and self-reflective lyrics that chart her world-wide journeys from Saudi Arabia to Belfast to Mexico. No mention of New Zealand in the list of destinations, unless you count the “little bitty island in the middle of the Pacific”.
3.6.9. features a slowed-down hip-hop type beat with Marshall speaking/rapping over top. It sounds like it should be a disaster, but it’s not.
The second half of the album is where Cat Power really finds her footing. She’s obviously in a good place emotionally despite what she’s been through and songs like Real Life and Human Being reflect that. She shares insights such as “Sometimes you gotta do what you don’t want wanna do”, and “You got your own voice so sing”. The sentiments may seem like clichés but Cat pulls them off with her charm and sincerity. She’s never preachy or overly sentimental or cloying.
The album’s centrepiece is the 10 minute Nothin But Time. The epic track build up tension while Power sings encouraging lines line “it’s up to you to be a superhero. I can only assume that the song was written for Lucia, but it also sounds like she is cheering herself on. Iggy comes in crooning at about the 6 minute mark (apparently Bowie was Power’s first choice). He sounds OK, but perhaps a bit out of place.
After the memorable Nothin But Time, the record wraps with the equally powerful, but much shorter Peace & Love. Cat gives credit to the flower power generation but asserts, “I’m a lover but I’m in it to win”.
Cat Power’s newfound confidence is apparent through much of this album (check out her rock & roll swagger on Silent Machine) and it’s inspirational and infectious. Her uplifting message is accompanied by music that is innovative, unique and surprising, but ultimately very satisfying. No doubt about it, this is one of the musical highlights of 2012.
Click here to listen to Ruin from Sun: