I have absolutely no qualms about calling Cat Power’s new album exactly what it is: a masterpiece. Sun marks the first album of completely original material in more than half a decade from Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall. Marshall is an artist who wears her influences on her sleeve, which I deeply admire, and her extensive library of recorded covers carries enormous value, but it still left me wondering what original material might be playing out in her mind. Before her covers album Jukebox, we were given The Greatest, an album of original songs which relied heavily on the contributions of session musicians. As incredible as those musicians were/are and as quality as the songs were that emerged, it still felt like Marshall wasn’t tapped into her purest creative energy. Sun possesses an energy unheard since 2003’s You Are Free.
The sequence of the first four tracks left my mouth agape the first time I heard them. They blend the sparse simplicity and emotive vibe of Moon Pix and the rootsy folk of You Are Free, but add something entirely new and fresh with heavy beats and phenomenal hooks. The title track eschews traditional instrumentation for pulsing beats and spacey synthesizers. This is Marshall at her most original, creative, and vibrant. “Ruin,” the album’s first single invokes Marshall’s current residence of Miami as she tries her own brand of Cuban mambo to great effect. Quick, brief snare hits punch as angular guitar jerks and whines under the chorus while Marshall shouts, “What are we doin’? / We’re sittin’ on a ruin.”
Marshall’s soulful side comes pouring out of the opening notes of “3,6,9” and her simple piano and vocal line carries more rhythm than I thought possible from such a sparse arrangement. This is the point where I realize I could write several hundred words on each song, but that would bore you all to tears. I have to say that the galloping clicks and hi-hat on “Manhattan” slay me and yes, that is Iggy Pop contributing backing vocals to the Bowie’s Heroes-esque “Nothin But Time.” Don’t worry, Marshall knows who she’s riffing on as always, singing, “It’s up to you, to be a superhero.” I’m still working on being my own, but I’d take Marshall as my superhero any day.
When I saw her perform at an Austin City Limits taping in 2006, she had to restart her cover of “House of the Rising Sun” maybe two dozen times, once playing only a single note before abandoning the song. If it takes that kind of introverted, perfectionist persona to create an album like Sun, it’s worth the wait. When she finally delivers, Marshall proves herself as one of today’s most inventive and brilliant songwriters all over again.