• Always On My Own
• Real Life
• Human Being
• Silent Machine
• Nothin’ But Time
• Peace & Love It’s been six years since Chan Marshall last released an album of original material, six years in which she’s suffered money woes, a relationship break-up and various mental health issues – all of which have been widely discussed. But anyone expecting more of the minimal, regretful songs that are pretty much her trademark will find Sun quite the surprise. Instead, Marshall’s ninth album signifies something of a fresh start. Instead of the bare piano chords of her early days, or the wistful horn sections of The Greatest, there’s a pleasing electronica influence and a fair amount of studio trickery on display (including, rather incongruously for an artist so lauded for her all-too-human voice, a dash of autotune).
There are even moments that could be considered even jaunty – the irresistible, hypnotic piano riff looped through ‘Ruin’ and the impossibly catchy ’3,6,9′ are about the closest Marshall has come to making commercial pop music. Yet, of course, beneath the radio-friendly sheen lies darkness and heartache, and it doesn’t take long to make itself known with the bruising opening verse of ‘Cherokee’ (“I’ve never known love like this / I’ve never known pain like this / everything die”). Yet there seems to be some steel to the sadness this time round. Even on the apparently bleak ‘Always On My Own’ there’s the caveat of “I want to live my way of living”, and while the aforementioned ’3,6,9′ may refer to her well-documented battles with drugs and alcohol (references to “a monkey on your back”, strangers in bed and a head “heavy like a waste basket”), the chorus’ homage to Shirley Ellis’s ‘The Clapping Song’ means it’s more of a celebratory affair than anything.
For all the catchy choruses, there’s a fair degree of experimentation on Sun. The gorgeous ‘Manhattan’ (maybe the prettiest song Marshall’s ever written) is built on a simple piano chord and some skittering beats that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Thom Yorke solo record, whereas the penultimate ‘Nothin’ But Time’ is an eleven-minute, two-chord epic. Despite the song’s length it never seems to drag, even when fading out and then fading back in. There’s a resemblance to David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ at times, especially when guest star Iggy Pop – so intrinsically linked with Bowie in the ’70s – lends his unmistakeable gravelly tones.
Admittedly there are a few minor quibbles with Sun. There’s a tendency to lean towards some rather trite, simplistic lyrics, especially on ‘Human Being’ (“We’ve all got rules we all have to break, we all have to make those mistakes”), and while ‘Nothin’ But Time’ is musically adventurous, it’s full of platitudes like “Never give in” and “Be your own superhero”. It’s only slightly redeemed by the fact that Marshall wrote it to her teenage step-daughter. Also, as with previous Cat Power albums, there are a couple of tracks that sound rather half-sketched and unmemorable, such as ‘Silent Machine’, that slow down the flow of the album a bit.
Sun concludes on a rumbustious high though with ‘Peace & Love’, crammed with garage guitar chords and an angry, half-rapped vocal from Marshall about “Half a million hits on the internet, but that don’t mean a shit to me”. It’s a glorious end to an album that may take a few plays to reveal its subtleties, but certainly stands up there with Marshall’s best work.