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Sun is the 2012 studio album from Cat Power. Six years after her last album of original material, Chan Marshall has moved on from her collaborative forays into Memphis soul and Delta blues. She wrote, played, recorded and produced the entirety of Sun by herself, a statement of complete control that is echoed in the songs' themes. The narrative arc of the record is deeply American in its spaciousness and optimism, but the music itself is defiantly modern and global.
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Much has changed. The cover of "Sun" shows Chan Marshall with a bold, short-cropped haircut, looking confidently and directly into the camera (and at her audience). And production-wise, the tracks are no longer minimalist or spare - they're fully fleshed out, with a variety of instruments and even occasional touches of electronic beats. If this isn't a pop album, than it's probably the closest thing to a pop album an artist like Cat Power is ever going to make. And - best of all - Chan didn't go to a popular pop music producer to make the record. She did it all on her own.
Thematically, the album seems to be about maturity. "Bury me, marry me to the sky" she sings on the glorious opening track, "Cherokee," showing a hard-won sense of connectedness. "This is the day people like we've been waiting for" she continues on the second song, basking in mindfulness.
However, things don't stay so sunny for long. Because as much as maturity allows you to enjoy life in the moment, it also offers pragmatism and perspective. On "Ruin" she chides people for "bitching/complaining/when some people ain't got sh*t to eat." It's simplistic, yes, but true. "3,6,9" describes the "monkey on your back" of substance abuse. And on "Real Life," she confronts the reality that life is often mundane and in order for it not to be, you have to sacrifice. "Real life is ordinary/sometimes you don't wanna live/Sometimes you gotta do what you don't want to /to get away with an unordinary life," she sings soberly.
With "Nothing but Time" Chan finds herself in the difficult position of having life experience and trying to give advice to a young person struggling. "Your world is just beginning/And I know this life seems never-ending/But you got nothing but time/And it ain't got nothing on you" she sings, sounding like your cool, wise aunt, until, inexplicably and wonderfully, rock legend Iggy Pop chimes in to complete the song.
"Sun" is a sonic portrait of a mature woman on the cusp of middle age, embracing her life experience and hard-won lessons, and looking forward to the future with a mix of pragmatism, melancholy and optimism.
"Sun" is unlike any Cat Power record you've ever heard, and yet it's decidedly hers. Replacing the soft wistfulness of "Lived in Bars" is a complex, sometimes very challenging electronic largeness in the production. Yet it still maintains its spirit. Not since St. Vincent's "Strange Mercy" last year has an artist so successfully balanced modernism and naturalism. Marshall's voice is as lush as ever, but now it's accompanied by a dozen swirling versions of itself, sometimes dotted with auto-tune, sometimes layered in ways that are disorienting.
But for all its flash, "Sun" remains a beautiful record. Her best songs here have bite, like lead single "Ruin," but just as many have a sense of wonder about them, like the sweeping album highlight "Nothing But Time."
Easily one of the ten best albums of 2012. As if we expected anything less.
So, having read the other 30-some reviews here, you will be very much aware that this release is indeed very different from her previous work. Change is risky, but I always respect an artist for daring to take that risk, whether it succeeds or fails. Put me in the category of calling this a success. Yes, very different....we've covered that. But it is a very enjoyable recording nonetheless. It is less sparse, more electric, more 'poppy' and has a very different energy than her previous records--even the more highly produced, bigger sounding The Greatest. But it never gets trite, becomes a self-parody or insults our intelligence. Ms. Marshall's depth and intelligence and poetic prowess are still solid. This is the effort of an artist who is confidently at the top of her game, not one of desperation or grasping at straws.
If you're new to Cat Power, listen to some of her earlier releases first, then buy this one. If you're already a fan, keep an open mind. This CD is not a masterpiece, but it is darned solid and I'm enjoying it as much as her earlier work.