Is it a sin to waste an inordinate amount of talent on something completely mediocre? I love sin as much as the next guy, but I prefer the good, fun sins, like drinking, cursing, and coveting my neighbor’s awesome collection of Star Wars bootlegs. When someone takes a voice that’s the closest thing this generation has to Joni Mitchell and voluntarily wraps it around material as weak as Cat Power’s latest Sun, that’s a sin to which I cannot abide.
Chan Marshall, better known by the moniker of her former band Cat Power, has had a rather chaotic professional and personal life since the release of 2006’s The Greatest. For Sun, her first full-length album in years, Marshall wrote and performed almost every song, vocal, and instrument. Iggy Pop warbles a few vocals on the 11-minute-long “Nothing But Time,” but Marshall recorded every other sound on the album in her personal studio.
Unfortunately, she trades in her soulful, mournful, bunch-of-other-sad-words-ful voice, a barren piano, and introspective lyrics for a synthesizer, bad sound effects, and a series of never-ending voice modulators and in the process tosses out the quiet dignity of her previous efforts. While fans of Cat Power’s earlier work may be scratching their heads, trying to figure out what happened to their go-to girl for gloomy-day soundtracks, the biggest disappointment of the album is not the change in direction - it’s that the change has eradicated Marshall’s defining asset. The clarity and quality of Marshall’s natural voice, which so defined the better earlier works, is almost completely absent throughout much of Sun.
The opening track “Cherokee” splices a cheesy screeching eagle sound effect into an otherwise listenable song, but the lyrics are maddeningly simplistic - although you can sense she was striving for minimalist and deep – and Marshall’s voice is lost amidst a swirl of other sound effects and bad mixing. The first few bars of the title track that follows could be a teenager experimenting with her first Casio keyboard, and again Marshall runs her gorgeous voice through so many modulators that the heft and darker undertones are stripped out and lost in a morass of mundane. There’s nothing exactly wrong with “Sun,” the song, but it sounds like every other song issued by every other ordinary female artist of 2006, and we know what Cat Power was capable of in 2006.
“Ruin” starts with a samba intro, which could be fun until Marshall starts reciting a list of cities. If you thought Marshall’s voice could make a list of anything sound lovely and profound, be it groceries, state capitals, or flavors of gum, this song proves that you were wrong. Other than Flight of the Conchords singing to all the ladies of the world, in this post-Vogue society singing a list of cities should be avoided at all costs. The exception may by Chan Marshall singing in her regular voice - then maybe it would work - but because of the overbearing layering on Sun, we’ll have to wait for “Cat Power Unplugged” to find out.
The songs that follow fall into a similar vein - listenable, but not great - until ‘Human Being’ emerges with trite lyrics like some creepy Butterfly Boucher kids’ song. “You’ve got a right to be what you wanna be, you’re a human being ... You’ve got two hands, let’s go make anything.” Rather than delivering these motivational gems with conviction, the lines are recited like a funeral dirge. Is Cat Power being ironic? “Manhattan” starts off as one of the more promising tracks, but stalls out and wanders directionless for almost 5 minutes, with the same three chords played over, and over, and over in the background. And “Silent Machine” is just awful - Marshall’s obviously trying to give a nod to beat poetry, but inadvertently ends up reminiscent of the Kids in the Hall skit mocking the hell out of beat poetry. Is unintentional parody a sin? Probably not, but ruining one of the most distinctive and haunting voices in alternative rock by repeating crappy lyrics ad nauseam should be.
Change is important, and reviewers tend to get a little testy when the same songs are retitled, repackaged, and sent out as “new” year after year like some Bon Jovi retread (and as a side note, Green Day is also releasing an 8-LP box set today of all their studio work - ahem). Cat Power/Chan Marshall’s prior works were built on a gossamer network of amazing sounds; rather than building on that framework, Sun’s addition of synthesizers, voice modulators, and drum kit sound effects actually detract from the overall quality of the material. There’s nothing on here that comes close to the substance of any track on You Are Free, or anything else in her catalog for that matter.
We don’t want you to be sad, Cat Power, we just want you to be good. If you want to make an upbeat record and change around the entire way we see and hear your music, if you want to be the new poster girl for Being Peppy, then fantastic, but just make sure the material is worth your vocal talents. Change merely for the sake of change may not rise to the level of sin, but wasting perfectly good talent should be.