Chan Marshall—the enigmatic musician who presents herself as Cat Power to the world—had for a long time built a career out of the hushed and dour. The fact that she did both with such radiant humanity and magnetic frailty turned her into one of the most beloved and (ironically, given her famously erratic performances) dependable singers of her generation.
Her body of work has shown her to be a master interpreter (on two terrific covers albums, especially the austere 2000 album The Covers Record), a very capable blue-eyed soul singer, and, above all, a peerless chronicler of despair. It's that last trait which, so grand an asset for so many years, began to feel like a weight under which Marshall was going to be crushed, both in her career and even her own life. Indeed, the one thing that this talented artist seemed to lack entirely (and need desperately) was a sense of fun.
2006's The Greatest began to turn the tide slightly, as did the follow-up, Jukebox—albums wherein a certain levity and casual grace started to mix with her already well-crafted foreboding nature and heavy heart. A positively exuberant cover of Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" on the soundtrack for the film I'm Not There pushed her even further into the realm of gleeful. As horns raced and Marshall teasingly slurred through the Bard's brilliant couplets, I doubt I was the only one thinking that this was the kind of song that would've turned The Greatest into a record truly befitting its name.
And now we've got Sun, an album that—in its own sly way—really does live up to its title. There may not be a horn jam to rival her take on "Stuck...," but I take no small pleasure in saying this is easily the funnest Cat Power album to date. If that sounds like a bit of a joke in itself, fair enough, but this is neither damning with faint praise, nor is it a suggestion that she's suddenly become Lesley Gore. Throughout, Sun remains a Cat Power album, concerned with self-examination, fate, love, rights, and all things messed up in the world. But there's simply no mistaking the joy and abandon with which she throws herself into the material.
Behind real hooks and full-blooded dance grooves, tracks like "Ruin," "3,6,9" and "Manhattan" are sung with the kind of peace that Marshall has never really shown before. It's not extroverted joy so much as an inner contentedness—the album projects this so consistently that one can even excuse the occasional use of auto-tune or kitschy eagle screech sample.
And when the record arrives at its penultimate statement, the 11-minute "Nothin But Time," we find Marshall (alongside the undying Iggy Pop, no less) wrapped in a series of mantras that best reflect where she seems to be right now: "You wanna live! You ain't got nothin but time. Your world is just beginning..."
Is it a ruse? Perhaps, but while it's none of our business, I'm guessing no. Because as warm as Sun makes one feel upon listening to it, none of it feels forced or insincere. In this way, it's still a classic Cat Power album—still a window into the soul of a person who's never been especially good at faking anything. And whether or not this is just a phase or truly a new life that's "just beginning", it's a moment you'll want to share with her.