The cover art for Cat Power’s newest release gives pretty plain insight into the spirit of her first album in six years (to be fair, Jukebox, 2008’s album of covers, came out in that time as well). A sitting image of a strikingly short-haired Chan Marshall (Power’s given name) superimposed atop a rainbow, beside the single word “sun” projects a sense of triumph through travail, the sort of clear-eyed beauty that can come after years spent weathering rain.
When she stepped into her studio in Silverlake three years ago though, the album she had planned to make was entirely different. Just after the release of 2006’s The Greatest, Marshall suffered a psychotic break compounded by years of alcohol abuse that caused a friend to check her into a Miami hospital. Since then, she went bankrupt, ended a tumultuous long-term relationship, was diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder, and her house went into foreclosure. She had been through a lot—but her music didn’t tell any of that story.
She started over at the suggestion from a friend who told her the new songs didn’t distinguish themselves much from the old, and that they were too depressing. This leveled Marshall, and as a result, she scrapped everything, and took an eight-month break from recording. She stopped playing the piano, and put down the guitar. Her disappointment sprung from the realization that she actually hadn’t been challenging herself to learn anything musically. She knew if she wanted to create something that reflected the reconstruction of her own life, she’d have to start from scratch, and that included stepping away from the instruments on which she so easily leaned.
When she was ready, she cashed out her retirement fund and rented out a house in Malibu that was without phone or internet to disconnect from everyday habit. She didn’t want a producer, and she didn’t want a manager. Although the details were unclear at this point, she knew what she wanted. The result is an album she wrote, recorded, and produced entirely herself. She plays every instrument and sings every note, with few exceptions, and the album feels just as real as anything she’s ever done, proving an artist can go anywhere with the form so long as it comes from a place grounded in reality. Though her stage antics precede her, you get the sense that this is someone with a deep respect for music, of its function as art and of artistry; of owning what you do and seeing it all the way through, without pretense.
The album is an entirely new sound for the woman who had built a career on a kind of lukewarm bathtub sadness, with synthesizers and drums acting as the new skeleton from which to build. “Cherokee” opens the album with a reset button and a fighting hook, that starts off calmly repeating “it’s my way” to reveal a shift from Power’s uncomfortably personal songwriting to a wide scope universality. On title track “Sun,” she extends the album cover’s end to chronic pain, and reignites a curiosity for life (“I wanna hear every answer to every question”) that’s been absent for years.
A self-proclaimed fan of hip-hop, Power’s staccato phrasing on songs like “Real Life” and “3,6,9” shakes loose a concern for the imperfect ways we manage to find constant dissatisfaction (“I met a doctor, he want to be a dancer”) by comparison. The melodically morose but lyrically uplifting “Human Being” leads into album standout “Manhattan,” a welcome vision of a warm night that contains maybe the entire record’s most telling line (“Liberty in the basement light”) and highlights a vocal performance that’s a single lit cigarette, embers glowing in the sky. Her Southern, rum-soaked rasp holds each note differently than the last, like free-falling moments you never get back.
Sun may well be the revelatory end to a twelve-step program, the dawning realization that through all of life’s manifestations, regardless of society or circumstance, we all really want the same things. So while the lyrics can read cloyingly New Age, the idea itself is a hard-fought one. Chan Marshall is such a product of the world, who’s lived through the darkest parts of experience so raw and suffocatingly crushing that it finally allowed her in all its subsequent light. After everything she’s seen, these are the simple truths of human life.
When you hear her talk about her decision six years ago in the middle of an interview to kill herself, the album’s bigger message is overwhelming. Someone who used to always imagine passing away towards the end of life no longer accepts a static narrative for herself. On her ninth album, Cat Power is a phoenix rising from the ashes, and Sun is her official rebirth. It gives retroactive context to The Greatest and everything else that came before, an exploding notion that failure can be the fount from which we learn to rethink, to rebuild, to revive.
The pinnacle of her manifesto, the album’s heart, is 11-minute epiphany “Nothin But Time,” an unbound redemption for life with help from Iggy Pop. Written for her ex’s teenage daughter, to whom Marshall became like a mother, the song (and the album, for that matter) is just as much addressed to the 20 year-old version of herself we see on the cover, all the things she wished she’d known. When she sings “It’s up to you to be like nobody,” it’s a complex idea wrapped up in an easy mantra—that we all have at any moment the right to create, as she says, an unordinary life. Like any other person from any other time, there’s nothing stopping us from owning this strange experience and making it count. It’s aged wisdom from an album as a whole that’s not void of pain or suffering, but has the understanding now that every day, every minute, the world is just beginning.
“People forget that they’re free—you think you’re stuck in a situation but you’re not. You’re free.”