SUN is a surprising album. It's not surprisingly good - most of Cat Power's past releases have been solid and noteworthy, so there's no reason to suspect that this particular album would be bad. This album defies expectations from so many fronts: tone, sound, subject matter, and style. If you've come in expecting a Cat Power record, you'll be surprised.
It's been about 6 years since Cat Power's last full-length studio album (of original material), and in the meantime, singer/songwriter Chan Marshall has been through a lot: bankruptcy, rehabilitation, a high-profile break-up, and an awesome haircut (alright, so maybe that's a bit less important than the others). Where THE GREATEST was a understated, bluesy outing, SUN is a record filled with keyboards, synthesizers, and drum machines. SUN might be the biggest change in direction Cat Power has ever recorded, but it is also perhaps the most confident.
The album's first three tracks are among some of the best Cat Power have recorded: "Cherokee" makes no attempt to hide the songwriter's change of direction. Marked with loops and repetition, Marshall's vocals sound especially organic compared to her electronic backdrop. The second track, the selftitled "Sun", is a more aggressive song that finds Cat Power venturing towards dance territory (never thought I would write that sentence). With a distorted guitar providing a dark, brooding chord shift, the song finds an incredible groove that had me reaching for the "repeat" button. The lead single "Ruin", despite its subject matter, is propulsive and even bouncy at times. The song has a melody that stays with the listener long after the playing time is over.
Lyrically, SUN finds Cat Power battling personal demons: "3,6,9" centers around the refrain "3, 6, 9, you drink wine -- monkey on your back, you feel just fine." But it also finds the singer/songwriter inspired with some more life-affirming and inspirational moments: "Nothing but Time" convinces listeners that they too can be "superheros" and to keep their heads up through the rough bits. "Human Being" muses on the individuality and interconnectedness of the human condition. "Ruin" and "Peace and Love" look at corruption and devastation on a more global scale.
The penultimate track "Nothing But Time" is appropriately named, running at just shy of 11 minutes. The track features Iggy Pop providing back-up vocals, an artist who has also seen his share of ups and downs. Unfortunately, his presence feels post-hoc, and often, the song would have benefited from his absence. The last track, and apparently Chan Marshall's favorite, is "Peace and Love," another aggressive track that feels like a culmination of everything on SUN; it's rough, littered with electronics and guitar, and angry with the world (particularly the government). Some of the more rap-inspired (regarding her delivery) come across as a bit awkward, but it's an effective way to close the album.
SUN's biggest problem however has absolutely nothing to do with the songwriting: the mix ranges from decent to not good. Some of the tracks sound overly compressed, and there's too much gain given to the bass drum kick - so much so that it often dominates the music. There are a few moments in the album's back half that sag, especially compared to some of the first tracks here.
Listeners coming into this expecting another YOU ARE FREE or THE GREATEST might find a bit of disappointment. SUN isn't Cat Power's best album, but it's the work of an artist in transition, and it's not without its creative high-points. Essential tracks to sample/download: "Ruin
," and "Sun
." It's hard to predict where she will go from here, but after hearing SUN, it's hard not to be interested.
(Additional release information!)
There's a few different ways you can buy this album, and depending on where you go, you may find yourself with different bonus tracks. The iTunes releases comes with two bonus tracks: "Fire" and "Back in the Days (for Christopher Wallace)." The Amazon release only comes with one bonus track: "King Rides By." If you want all three of these tracks, the Japanese import includes them -- otherwise, you'll have to buy them separately.