Cat Power, by now, is a legacy act. She’s collected all the trophies: Scrappy early work, breakout album (1998’s Moon Pix), artistic triumph (2000’s The Covers Record), inarguable masterpiece (2003’s You Are Free) and respectable plateau (everything thereafter.) She’s earned gravitas. Chan Marshall could have released 15 more albums off it — all world-weary blues, some of which might brush with the zeitgeist the way a found scrap might brush with history — and do just fine. She’d do more covers: a little more Hank, a little more Dylan, possibly Dusty Springfield, definitely some Dusty, respectable classics. Those sordid stories that still cling to her — the booze, the nerves, the breakdowns — would be shaken free, if they hadn’t already by 2008’s Jukebox. She wouldn’t sound cracked but weathered, like clay. It would all be in impeccable taste.
It’s hard to talk about musical taste lately without talking about the week’s latest glossary of the stuff: the People’s List, a poll of Pitchfork readers’ canonical albums from 1996 to 2011. Both timeframe and demographic sync almost exactly with Marshall’s — though perhaps “demographic” is the wrong word. After the usual jokes about the winners (which are dull and beard-based and easy enough to guess) came the usual criticism: The lack of women in the final running and, as either cause or effect, among voters. To wit: Only 12 percent of respondents were female, a lower ratio than that of Radiohead albums in the top 20. It’s a common complaint, as anyone who’s read any publication’s best-of list or seen VIDA’s byline stats could tell you, and too routine to be surprising. That said, it lends a certain unfair importance to those women who do pass mostly-male muster. Legacy acts need legacies, after all, and canonization is a fairly reliable path to that.
Marshall is part of that canon, albeit not too solidly. You Are Free came in at #149, which is enviable for all music released since 1996 but on a constrained list of 200 albums looks more like a nicety. But don’t begrudge her; she’s endured a lot to earn this. No, not the traumas (though they too were endured), but all the little slights that any woman endures with sufficient time in the industry. The features and reviews that are really thinly- or not-disguised crush notes; the comparisons to dolls, children, archetypes, sirens and such; the laser-pointer focus on looks; the dwelling by everyone upon Marshall’s alcoholism or depression that’s, as Amanda Petrusich points out, not reverent in the tortured-artist sense but hand-wringing, as if maybe people mistook Cat Power for Cat Marnell. These aren’t straw men; I’ve read at least two articles from each category this week alone. Fortunately or not, they’re part of what forged Cat Power’s fame. The only way to escape them is that graceful, tasteful plateau, and its ever-so-slight downward slope.
I mention this online scuttlebutt because Cat Power does, albeit to dismiss it, on Sun closer “Peace and Love” in what will likely be the album’s most-quoted line: “100,000 hits on the Internet/ Don’t mean shit.” These are not the lyrics of a graceful plateau and not normally the lyrics of a legacy act. They’re more likely to come from an upstart, one who maybe shouldn’t boast about metrics yet, let alone brush them off. They’re not entirely out of the ordinary for Cat Power, though she’s never been quite this confident. “Lived in bars and danced on tables,” Marshall sings on The Greatest, sounding like she meant jail and danced something deliberate, not wild. She goes to bed with someone on “Could We,” her version of “Afternoon Delight” rendered even more polite: no action is narrated, and the song lilts like a G-rated Central Park sing-along. Even on You Are Free, her most assured record before this, it’s stilted. There’s “I’m not that hot new chick” from “He War,” but it’s a tentative taunt. “Free” is maybe 70% of the way to selling the anthem. The album works, but it’s not for being snappy.
“Of course, people will be galvanized — Sun is Cat Power’s most ambitious album in years, possibly ever; how could they not be?”
Sun is considerably snappier, in writing and production alike. You can’t quite call it a departure, considering Marshall’s said in interviews that parts were meant as a follow-up to The Covers Album. But it sounds it. French DJ Philippe Zdar (Phoenix, The Rapture, Cut Copy) mixed and inspired Sun, and though you could produce acoustic arrangements of these songs, the album’s a thing of the studio — the modern studio. There are synthesizers: a sudden burst on “Sun” to shock you, flanges and buzzes throughout “Real Life,” a celebratory sheen on “Nothin’ But Time.” There are drum machines, given the sort of glitchy patterns they play better than humans. There’s a vocoder on “3, 6, 9” that’s not even trying to be subtle.
Mercifully, none of these come off as gimmicks. Sun’s basic components are Cat Power’s standards: Chiming piano riffs, folk arrangements, husk of a voice. Ignore the reverb sheen and clickety-clack drum loop, and opener “Cherokee” could be a lament like “Good Woman; there’s even a hawk cry, as organic as you can possibly get. “Always on My Own” sounds like a Dear Sir cut unearthed, dragged into the sun and splashed with water to half-reconstitute it; the track itself is noir one coat of production away from Danger Mouse, but tucked into its corners are wails that sound like Chan Marshall recorded them twenty years ago and didn’t edit a thing. “Silent Machine” is the ZZ Top scorcher she’s probably always dreamed of fronting. “Ruin,” the lead single, is easy enough to parse: it’s like the sentiment of “Fool” set to the music of “He War.” It’s shinier than You Are Free, but it’s not always riskier.
But risks there are. “3, 6, 9” may or may not quote the Ying Yang Twins, but “three, six, nine / drink wine” is the same sort of devil-may-care tweetable Marshall’s been studiously distancing herself from for years. Between the booze and autotune, it signifies instantly as party talk and will be sung at a thousand Two-Buck Chuck-fueled parties. But this is a song by Cat Power, for whom drinking is fraught, so it shouldn’t be as jarring as it is to realize that the rest of the line goes “Fucking on your back, you feel just fine/ You think you really own me,” that the relationship’s explicitly said to be abusive or close to it, and that the outro — one repeated “fuck me,” jerked around the scale until it goes silent — is terrifying.
Not everything’s so knotty. “Manhattan” is disarmingly plinky about complex feelings, but in an expected way — it’s practically a Jens Lekman song. The it-gets-better anthem “Nothin’ But Time” has no twists, just an impossibly generous 11-minute hug — and those bemused by Eddie Vedder’s presence on You Are Free will just have to accept Iggy Pop as a natural, if bellowing, partner in the song. If you can’t quite do that, “Human Being” works just as well. It could well have been custom-written for this year’s confessional vogue, its many defense of having feelings: “You’ve got a right to scream when they don’t want you to speak … we all have moods, we all have to breathe.” The clickwork of “Sun” makes it propulsive, not sluggish; it’s too busy to mourn. There’s only one misstep; even if you accept that Marshall’s been around the world on that jaded round-trip that leads through Dakar and Calcutta and so forth to home with a revelation, the earnest list-song structure of “Real Life” may grate. “I met X, he just wanna Y,” she sings over and again, where X sometimes equals “a dog” and Y “bark.” Then again, Marshall earns it, both in career stature and sharpness. The girl in the lyrics wants to meet her maker, and Marshall probably meant both the religious and suicidal meaning; her counterpart boy wants to “be a joke,” as deft a summary as there is of the meme-baiting phenomenon critic Maura Johnston’s dubbed trollgaze.
Which brings us back to “Peace and Love.” If the Internet line didn’t tip you off that this wasn’t one of Marshall’s offcuts, “99 percent, y’all” should, as would the constant references to poverty that make so much more sense in the early 2000s than 2010s. You could call it a protest song — really, you could say the same of any closing cut called “Peace and Love” with a na-na-na chorus — but all she’s protesting for is her own continued relevance. “I’m in it to win,” she sings, and she means only herself, and she means there’s a loser; she knows there are stakes. Her “rap” is too brusque, and that would-be anthemic chorus is too pressed and dips into too sardonic an alto to galvanize anyone else.
Of course, people will be galvanized — Sun is Cat Power’s most ambitious album in years, possibly ever; how could they not be? The piece missing is her live performances. It’s possible to escape the stigma of past fumbles — Fiona Apple, who was criticized for the same stumblings, singlehandedly wiped them all away with two or three appearances — but it’s never certain how’s she going to do this live. Everybody has a Cat Power concert story, and they all surface around this time in the album cycle. I don’t; I’ve seen her once, an unremarkably professional gig at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro during her hitch-free Dirty Delta Blues phase. Perhaps that’ll happen again. Perhaps it won’t, and when she performs this live, it’ll be halted by sudden soliloquies or mood-killing tangents. Or perhaps, less depressingly, she’ll get the pyrotechnics and transcendence she’s always half-joked she wanted. You suspect it’s on her mind. After all, Cat Power is in it to win, not to coddle — and not to retire quietly.
Sun is out 9/4 via Matador. Stream the record at NPR.