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Cat Power
Sun Matthew Foster , September 12th, 2012 01:09

So here's Sun, in which an uncharacteristically swaggering Chan Marshall makes a tortured six year gestation sound effortless. If the Cat Power backstory so far has touched on some of the darker sides of human nature, on dependency, abuse and despair, Sun is the light at the end of one hell of a tunnel, a record brimming with an assurance and playfulness that, if a little dorky in places, is about as cathartic as pop gets. Without laying on the cod-psychology, Sun sounds like an LP by someone who's done her time and come out the other side laughing.

That streak of defiance is there from the off, the bracing 'Cherokee' marrying terse percussion with a chorus of Marshall voices to fashion one of those album openers that can do nothing but snag you in for a listen. Single 'Ruin' sits the younger Marshall (and a few pampered upstarts) down for a chat about the perils of "bitching, complaining" when most of the world never gets it this good, and does so to a funky (no, really) guitar backing and deliciously simple piano riff. The soul stomp of 'Silent Machine' is enigmatic, sexy and subtle, while 'Peace and Love''s gawky semi-rap delivery cracks a smile at some poor bastard's expense. If Sun had been an in-joke title at some point, it doesn't show by the end product: this album just feels good.

Marshall's single-minded insistence on self-producing in the face of label demands is, it turns out, mostly a good thing. It's hard to imagine many producers for this kind of high profile release letting, for instance, something as slender as 'Manhattan' out in the form it takes here: built around a simple, cheap drum and piano loop, the track is sweet-natured and unadorned, and all the better for its unfussy leanings. Self-production also results in cute little quirks like the unexpected auto-tune vocal coda to the title track, or the generous space and far-out icy synths of the understated 'Always on My Own'. 

While Marshall plays nearly everything on Sun, it rarely feel like she's over-indulging or hitting some middle-aged muso streak. This is, after all, an artist who reportedly stopped writing for months when a friend merely hinted that her latest work sounded like her old stuff: it's very clearly an LP crafted by someone still trying to push herself. What that means, of course, is that some of those people who need Cat Power to sound like a mess, or who are still in their own patch of hell, might come away feeling let down by a lack of gut-wrenching moments. In some ways, Sun brings to mind Elliott Smith's Figure 8, or Wilco's post - A Ghost Is Born work; carefully constructed, musically ambitious but made by artists taking respite from the kind of turbulence that made their name.

It feels selfish, then, to snark about the faintly absurd, eleven-minute 'Nothin' But Time', which is, however much I try to spin it otherwise, pretty much a U2 song. Even if an Iggy Pop guest vocal does its best to lend the track some grit, it's a bit 'Everybody Hurts' in its imparting of patronising chin-up advice and contains a truly teeth-gnashing line that really does sing "it's up to you / to be a superhero". 'Human Being', too, lays it on a bit thick with talk of "people on TV" who "get shot in their very own street", as if, you know, we hadn't sussed that most of our white boy/girl problems were grand-scale meaningless. 

But that's nit-picking, really, the kind of bitchiness Marshall pre-empted on 'I Don't Blame You' in 2003 when she spat "they never owned it / and you never owed it to them anyway". Instead, Marshall should be applauded for not trying to fake the safety of sadness: it would be a brave critic indeed who tried to level the accusation that this stuff is insincere when the whole record has been an obvious labour of love. Whether you think Sun is Marshall's crowning glory probably depends on the kind of Cat Power you're after, then, but as an album on its own terms, the terms on which it deserves to stand, it's honest, accomplished, and pretty much just beautiful.

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