Matador released Sun two weeks ago. Before that, it was available through NPR Music's handy First Listen program, which introduced me to Django Django's self-titled effort, one of the year's best debuts (and here's hoping they win the Mercury Prize for it; they made 2012's list of nominees).
But I had other things to do, and I didn't want to listen to Cat Power's new record until I had time to give it my undivided attention. I liked the songs I'd heard on KEXP, but there's nothing like listening to an album in full. And I often have to listen repeatedly before I know for sure what I think. And I think—I know—I love it.
I couldn't say whether the title means to indicate that Chan Marshall is in a good place or not. She's admitted that it's a break-up record, so she may be intending the word ironically (after the break-up, she impulsively cut her hair; hence the new "gamine" image). In any case, I kept my expectations somewhere in the middle, i.e. neither low nor high, since she's always been hit or almost-miss for me.
In short, I liked What Would the Community Think and Moon Pix from the moment I first heard them, but I still haven't managed to pick up a copy of either. I guess I probably should, but the one-two punch of You Are Free and The Greatest marked the point at which I crossed the line from casual admirer to ardent fan.
Marshall even managed to render Eddie Vedder non-irritating on "Free" (he simply sings the title word over and over). And now she does something similar with Iggy Pop on Sun's "Nothing But Time," which recaptures the dreamy, synth-driven magic of mid-'70s Brian Eno (Iggy, circa the Stooges, is unbeatable, but a little of the stiff-necked growl he's developed over the years tends to go a long way).
Recorded at Ardent Studios, home of Booker T. & the M.G.'s and Big Star.
Much has been made of the fact that she's added electronic effects to her arsenal, but it's a pretty subtle difference (see "Manhattan," which combines her dusky drawl with chiming piano and a spare drum-machine beat). Marshall also played every instrument herself, in stark contrast to The Greatest, for which she teamed up with the Memphis mainstays who played on Al Green's finest sides.
But her voice and songwriting style hasn't changed; she's just upped the ante with inventive arrangements and evocative phrases. I get the impression that she was willing to trying anything, now matter how bizarre it seemed at the time (in that sense, Sun reminds me of P.J. Harvey's Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, which also took inspiration from NYC as a real or imagined space).
Unlike most career musicians who release an album every one to two years, Marshall took a six-year break after The Greatest, allowing her to make another graceful stylistic shift that reflects her evolving emotional state—and she does seem to have staked ground in a better, more self-sufficient place than before. It's early days yet, but Sun may just be my favorite Cat Power record to date.
Cat Power plays Showbox SoDo on Nov 3 (all ages). Sun is out now on Matador.