That Chan Marshall took six years between albums of new material fits with the mythology that has defined and dogged her since she started playing sad, spare songs as Cat Power in the mid-’90s. She’s supposed to be flaky and temperamental at best, downright crazy at worst, prone to onstage breakdowns and odd diversions. It’s at least partially true, but it’s also too easy a way to dismiss a songwriter who’s made some of the most emotionally affecting and gorgeous records of the past couple of decades.
The excuse for her tardiness this time makes fine artistic sense, in any case: She told Pitchfork that a friend dismissed the batch of songs she had been writing for a follow-up to 2006’s fantastic, soul-inspired The Greatest as “like depressing old Cat Power,” so she started fresh. Her hardened fans probably wouldn’t have minded a proper sequel to 1998’s Moon Pix or 2003’s You Are Free, and Sun provides a couple of moments that could satisfy that need. But the album mostly moves into unexplored territory for Marshall, adding layers and sounds (and, strangely, an underlying hip-hop-flavored current) she hasn’t touched much in the past. It’s not always successful, but like everything she touches, it’s never less than intriguing. And here, notably, she plays pretty much everything herself.
Sun starts strong with the ambling “Cherokee,” which feels like a spiritual sequel to “Cross Bones Style” from Moon Pix, with its gentle breakbeat and electronic skips. As an album opener, it’s a perfect reintroduction. “Sun” recalls You Are Free, with sorrowful layers of vocals complemented by manufactured drums and oddly treated backing vocals. Same goes for “Always On My Own,” which should please Cat Power traditionalists.
Lyrically, though, Marshall looks outside herself more than usual on Sun, which can trip her up: The funky, piano-led “Ruin” is terrific until the lyrics—about those less fortunate in the world—hit the nail on the head a little too squarely. Similarly, the 11-minute “Nothin But Time” builds up a nice head of steam before inexplicably bringing Iggy Pop in to close it out. It’s weirdly incongruous, which in Marshall’s case is maybe the precise—and best—thing to expect. Sun isn’t the greatest collection of songs she’s ever released—let’s give that to You Are Free—but even her B-game is always worth hearing.