It was high time the new album by Cat Power came out: four years, no less, have gone by since “Jukebox”, and that was just a covers album. Keeping in mind the quality level Chan Marshall has us accustomed to, it was something like having to settle for a regular white wine when we could have had a Chardonnay or a Gewürztraminer. The problem is, in cases like this, that the expectations become so high that disappointment could be multiplied by a thousand; especially if we consider “The Greatest” as the standard to be maintained. Luckily, “Sun” delivers the goods.
Cat Power explains that this record stands for the following sentiment: “Don’t look back, pick up, and go confidently into your own future, to personal power and fulfilment.” It looks like a phrase copied from some self-help book, but it's actually a way to describe what “Sun” is about, an LP that, far from the hangover blues and unhappy rock of “The Greatest” and “Jukebox”, shows a full U-turn towards optimism. While before it was all bars, broken dreams and impossible relationships, now she sings about a new life and new possibilities: “the world is just beginning, it’s up to you to be a superhero, to be like nobody”, she murmurs on “Nothing But Time”. Maybe the lyrics of songs like “Good Woman”, or “Lived In Bars”, are deeper and lyrically richer than the ones on this album, but now we see a Chan Marshall who stands strong and grows in the face of adversity, where before she would hide. In fact, while on “The Greatest” she could fall back on her exceptional live band (The Dirty Delta Blues), it looks like her upcoming concerts are going to be all on her own. Given her shyness and stage fright, it's going to be quite the challenge for her. And there are more changes: on “Human Being”, the social-political preoccupations she Tweets about are reflected in a song which, while not exactly a typical track with a message, is at least a call to action.
And then there's the use of synthesisers, which are used to the detriment of the guitars, which will have more than one frowning. But rather than an attempt to shock people, it seems like something she thought through: it's a leap of faith, but she's spot on – everything is in the right place and the drum machine has taken over from the piano. She even gives an almost imperceptible vocoder a shot and some auto-tune, on “3, 6, 9”: more reasons for the fan to scratch behind their ears. But if you manage to get rid of the preconceived ideas about what Chan Marshall should sound like, you'll have a good time.
If anyone wants to hear the old Chan, they can put “Always On My Own” on repeat, because that's practically the only moment on “Sun” where we get a glimpse of what she used to sound like. Maybe the best way to understand this album is to listen to “Cherokee”, one of the highlights on the record, on which the fragile Chan Marshall who used to tear up her pain in raw songs and the Cat Power who prefers to shove aside her sadness - or at least make something else out of it - go hand in hand. It may sound like a less personal album, but it's actually about getting rid of the rawness and nakedness of her earlier recordings and showing us a thicker skin, looking around and telling her stories through the eyes of others (“Manhattan”, “Silent Machine”). And there are a few rock anthems, like “Nothing but time" (featuring Iggy Pop) and “Peace And Love”.
“Sun” is much more than a turning point in Cat Power's career; it's also one of her best efforts ever. Except for the artwork, it has to be said.