CAT POWER: SUN (2012)
1) Cherokee; 2) Sun; 3) Ruin; 4) 3,6,9; 5) Always On My Own; 6) Real Life; 7) Human Being; 8) Manhattan; 9) Silent Machine; 10) Nothin But Time; 11) Peace And Love.
I don't really know what it is that makes so many analog-reared artists these days to convert to electronica sooner or later — apparently, there's this idea floating around in the air that playing guitars and pianos is «so 20th century», and that there's no way you can avoid electronic sound generation and programmed patterns if you want to stare into the future rather than stagnate in the past. Apparently, this idea is much stronger than the reminder that electronic music is a product of the 20th century, and that way too many «electronic escapades» of modern indie artists end up sounding even more retro (for instance, hearken all the way back to 1980's synth-pop) than whatever they were doing prior to that. In other words, electronic music as the key to the future is no longer a win-only option — these days, it's just another way of preserving the status quo.
Still, I guess that in the case of Cat Power anything works that can lead the artist away from another puddle of depressed, minimalistic, unmemorable streams of conscious and towards a more concise melodic shape for her compositions — and, luckily for us all, her embrace of electronic beats and pulses managed to put her back on the same track that made You Are Free such a satisfactory experience. Most of these songs she recorded all by herself, only utilizing musicians from Jukebox's «Dirty Delta Blues Band» on a couple of tracks; but there are quite a few acoustic overdubs as well, clothing the electronic skeletons, and the mix is very tasteful. Honestly, she is not just embracing electronics because it is the trendy thing to do — or if she does, she at least manages to coax such sounds out of all her synthesizers and computers so as to agree with her emotional constitution: dark, paranoid, psychic textures all around.
A good example is the title track — uninteresting drum machine beat aside, the harsh, grey synth canvas, reminding of an endless cloud front swooping across the sky, make a cool contrast with the opening "here comes, here comes, here comes the Sun", clearly an allusion to George Harrison but with the meaning reversed: in this song, the coming of the Sun seems to rather mean "the end of the world" than the hope of redemption and salvation, as she sings about the distant period in time when the Sun is expected to expand and burn down all life on Earth. The song's quietly dramatic flavor is enhanced with several layers of electronics and overdubs of background vocals, and it works in a Dead Can Dance sort of way, even though the overall sonic combination is much simpler (after all, Chan Marshall is not really a studio tech wiz, and for her first serious experience in harnessing complex studio technologies, this is a great success).
Elsewhere, she relies on electronics as the backbone for a dance-oriented experience: ʽ3,6,9ʼ combines elements of trip-hop and hip-hop (as well as a bit of a nursery rhyme for the chorus), but everything is still infused with the Cat Power atmosphere, as she (fortunately) makes no effort to get into tough street rapping, but simply applies her usual tired, brooding, "been-to-hell-and-back" voice to the new pattern — and it ain't great, but it works. ʽReal Lifeʼ also features her half-singing, half-rapping, but without betraying the usual vocal timbre and intonation, although I am not sure if I like the somewhat «preaching» attitude she takes on here, energized with all the heavy beats ("sometimes you gotta do what you don't want to do / to get away with an unordinary life" — really?). But somehow these things never sound irritating — on the contrary, there's something enchanting about how she manages to marry these conventional dance practices with closeted, introspective brooding.
The songs that got most of the attention, having been released as singles, are actually the ones that are least dependent on electronics and feature her backing band — ʽRuinʼ and ʽCherokeeʼ. The former is a universalist Cassandra-style lament about the ultimate fate of human society, spinning atop an enticing piano riff that sounds as if it was sampled from a ballroom version of ʽLa Cucarachaʼ and then, in the chorus, riding a good old disco bassline, which, of course, makes the repetitive chorus lyrics ("what are we doing? we're sitting on a ruin!") even more ironic. Likewise, ʽCherokeeʼ is also built on a contrast — a song of love and death, all echoey pianos and high-soaring wailing guitar trills, with an unforgettable chorus of "bury me, marry me to the sky" (an invocation where both parts have to be understood as semantically equivalent — thus, love and death are actually the same thing, if it's sexy enough for you). I think we could all have a good grin at the deadly seriousness and pretentiousness of the song, but it pulls me in by means of sheer craft — I really like how the guitars, pianos, and vocals mesh together, and the impression can be interpreted as romance or mourning or both at the same time, and the bottomline is, if the music totally matches the lyrics, everything about the lyrics is forgivable.
The album's conceptually simplest song also happens to be its longest — ʽNothin But Timeʼ, a song of unexpected hope addressed to the younger generation ("you ain't got nothing' else but time, and they ain't got nothin' on you... your world is just beginning"), strolls on for 11 minutes at the same tempo and on top of the same two-note piano melody. I am not sure why (particularly about the instrumental coda — for some reason, after the song fades out around a still reasonable seven-minute mark, it just has to come back again and drive that riff even deeper in your skull for an extra four minutes), but I do like the arrangement and the surprising optimism in the chorus: it is almost as if, after having preached about the end of the world as we know it and her own mortality and the impossibility to resolve any problems for so long, she wants to leave us with one big "Well, it's all curtains for me and for you, but let's at least leave some hope for the little children" — and I'm fine with that. The amusing extra note here is that she invites Iggy Pop to help her out with the chorus harmonies, and he makes the best of his melodic baritone to join her in a fit of tenderness. Yes indeed, there's no one out there like old Iggy to wish for a brighter future for our children.
The record does end on a more grown-up note, though: ʽPeace And Loveʼ, another piece of paranoid, half-sung, half-rapped electronic rock, seems to push forward an agenda of "grown-up, progressive hippieism" ("I'm a lover but I'm in it to win"), and, again, it does this in a musically intelligent way — the hookline is a repetitive string of "na-na-na-na"'s, just the kind of thing you'd expect from some old Flower Power band, but they're sung in a minor key and the whole thing sounds like a troubled warning to mankind... as does this entire album, as a matter of fact. It may be called Sun, and there might be a rainbow coming through that front sleeve, but it is still only trying to break out from the darkened sky, and the expression on that face is anything but conventionally «sunny». The good news is, this is one more of those few albums in her catalog where she really comes across as a musician with a strong personality, not as a personality with weak musicianship — so if electronics continues to be this good to her, bring it on. For the record, it did take me a few listens to get warmed up to this new twist, so the thumbs up rating is a bit hard-earned; but it does feel good, you know, when repeated listens eventually lead to satisfaction of the senses, rather than dumb frustration.