The once-troubled singer returns. Has she finally got her shit together?
In art as in life, Chan Marshall is a rolling stone, moving from one extreme to another, from one place to the next. She’s been hospitalised after alcohol and drug abuse; been a muse to Karl Lagerfeld and Wong Kar-wai, and been photographed semi-nude by Richard Avedon. This, her ninth album was recorded in L.A., Miami and Paris, and its standout track, “Ruin” goes like this: “Saudi Arabia Dhaka Calcutta Soweto Mozambique Istanbul Rio Rome Argentine Chile Mexico Taiwan Great Britain Belfast to the desert in Spain Wollongong Tokyo some little bitty island in the middle of the Pacific”.
Marshall, aka Cat Power, started out making morose little songs in the mid-90s, when her voice was a rather sullen, detuned instrument. Since then it’s become one of the most distinctive and beautiful in modern music: earnest, sexy and deep, but sometimes modulating into a spidery croon like Karen Dalton’s. Her breakthrough came with Moon Pix (1998) before You Are Free (2003) pared back the palette to smudged, overdriven guitar and limpid piano. Eddie Vedder delivered smouldering backing vocals and Dave Grohl played drums. On her next record, The Greatest (2006), the fragmentary soulfulness of her previous work was distilled into a warm, honeyed dram, creating a classic modern country-soul LP whose backing band included Al Green and Booker T vets.
Barreling through these styles, as well as damaging her mental health to breaking point, led her to L.A. and a four year relationship with actor Giovanni Ribisi which has recently ended. She recorded songs only to have a friend tell her they were “boring” and “depressing”, sending her into months of inactivity, before starting again and ditching her guitar and piano for drums and synths. These became the bedrock for Sun, with the old sounds eventually folded in – aside from on “Ruin”, she plays every instrument.
This, then, is a rich and strange new sound for Marshall. The taut breakbeats and skipping-rope vocals on “Cherokee” and “3,6,9” recall Beck and Luscious Jackson’s 90s swagger; there’s a (very lovely) spot of Autotune on the latter, and a funkily-deployed eagle cry on the former. “Ruin” seals this first upbeat section, with a pumping, octave-leaping disco bassline acting as the red journey line drawn across its global map. This is Marshall at her absolute finest: dissolving verse-chorus-verse for an impetuous but visionary restructuring of songcraft. Her choices on her two covers albums dovetail with this approach: “Wild Is The Wind”, “Sea Of Love”, “New York, New York”, songs that have something to say and keep trying new and beautiful routes into saying it. Her hero, unsurprisingly, is Dylan.
But elsewhere her gift for this kind of loose, itinerant style disappears. Her melodies evaporate on “Peace & Love”; a couple of tracks are compelling but tangibly second-tier; and “Real Life” has a turgid groove topped with fortune cookie philosophy (“nothin’s wrong to live your day long”) – the effect is weirdly like British baggy bands at their most drug-addled.
You could argue as well that her electronic textures are unfashionable but Marshall, despite her elegantly-wasted chic, doesn’t seem to know what cool even is – ultimately there’s an authority and honesty to her work that steamrollers any unease about her choices (Phillippe Zdar, who gave Phoenix such production pep recently, helps by mixing the record brightly). Her vision of Manhattan on a song of the same name is hers alone: intimate, surreal, moonlit with prettily clanging piano. And “Nothing But Time”, apparently written for Ribisi’s bullied daughter, is an 11-minute constant coda, featuring that lugubrious lizard sage Iggy Pop in a drawled duet.
These are songs that only Marshall can write. She’s unlikely to produce a flawless masterpiece – her flightiness puts paid to that. But this is perfection of a different sort, someone rolling, gathering the moss of life and fashioning it into the sum total of what they’ve learned.
There’s a lot of new effects on this record…
I started playing these weird looking machines, synthesiser, keyboard-looking things – I didn’t know what the fuck else to do. And when I finally went to the guitar I plugged it into all this shit I had never used before – I said ‘what’s this, what’s that, let’s plug them all up, what the fuck does this do, record that!’
Where do the lyrics come from?
My frontal lobe when I’m relaxing to music. That’s what music is for, it gives us a quilt for our mind, and it quilts my frontal lobe and my subconscious is allowed to speak. We have a lot of shit going on in 90% of our minds, but we don’t access it, because we’re too busy trying to get food, or good grades, or follow the rules… That’s what music does for us – we just press play.
Are you pleased with Iggy’s contribution?
I love it. He’s the freedom fighter, he does what he wants, he’s living proof. He’s a badass. I invited him over for a Campari afterwards, but he was out of town and I had a voicemail just saying [adopts perfect Iggy tones] “Chan, aaaaaah…”
INTERVIEW: BEN BEAUMONT-THOMAS
Photo credit: Andrew Conroy