Chan Marshall looks like Joan of Arc on the cover of her new album, “Sun.” Ms. Marshall’s face is young, her neck long, her hair recently cropped, and her eyes are bold and beautiful, like that of an icon. Yet Marshall, who performs under the moniker Cat Power, is no saint – she would readily admit that. But like Joan of Arc, Marshall is no stranger to battle either. In fact, she’s been fighting most of her life.
Although she was born in Atlanta, Marshall’s parents split not long after, which meant that she was raised all over the south — she went wherever her stepfather found work. This itinerant lifestyle offered the young Marshall the unique opportunity to attend 10 different schools until she eventually dropped out. She took a job at a pizza joint back in Atlanta, and a few years later she moved to New York City and recorded her first record.
Yet as Marshall’s musical career gained momentum, her personal struggles became even more serious. She has been plagued with long and grave bouts of anxiety, depression and addiction for much of her adult life. In 2006, upon the release of her last collection of original songs, “The Greatest,” a friend helped check her into a hospital, which she admits saved her life. Most recently, as Marshall was wrapping up the recording of “Sun” in the spring, her longtime boyfriend broke up with her — he married another woman this summer.
Life has not been easy for Chan (pronounced “Sean”) Marshall. Fortunately for us, she works through her suffering on the eleven tracks of “Sun,” which she pretty much made all by herself. Ms. Marshall wrote, sang, produced and played all the instruments on the album. Although her usual accompaniment of guitar and piano are absent, she more than compensates with drums, synthesizers, loops and even some Auto-Tuning. The only instrument that hasn’t changed on “Sun” is Marshall’s voice, which is smoky, honest and undeniably feminine.
“Cherokee” is the first track and Marshall wastes no time soft peddling as she openly confesses, “I never knew love like this/the wind the moon the sky/I never knew pain like this/when everything dies.” Yet as the music builds and the chorus commences, she offers a strange request: “Bury me, marry me to the sky/ if I die before my time, bury me upside down.” Marshall asks for a proper burial but acknowledges that she’s not yet ready for death, yet if she were to die too soon, she would accept a dishonorable burial. Recognizing the stakes are high, she holds herself accountable, challenging herself to transformation so that she can marry the sky, rather than head in the opposite direction.
Marshall sings over and along with her own voice on the title track, “Sun,” a song that rejoices in the end of a long, cold and dark night. (Intentional or not, this track is a response to “Moon” from “The Greatest” where she sang, “The moon is not only ice cold/it is here to stay.”) In the first line of “Sun” Marshall announces, “Here it comes in all its burning/here it comes its splitting the bone/here it comes we’re all so tired of waiting/whose side are you on?” The hot sun is coming, but it’s not a given that everyone prefers the light and the heat to the darkness and cold. Marshall continues, “This is the day people like me been waiting for/so tired of waiting.” She’s not convinced that everyone else is as enthused. In other words, the sun will do its part by bringing its light as well as “every answer to every question,” but Marshall suggests that some people may choose to cover their eyes and plug their ears.
“Ruin,” according to Marshall, is a song about the lack of memory and responsibility of national leaders. She rattles off an impressive list of countries and cities that she’s visited only to come back home and hear “bitchin’ ” and “complaining” while “some people ain’t got (expletive) to eat.” She asks, “What are we doin’?/we’re sitting on a ruin.” But in a recent interview, Marshall explained that the song has a second meaning – it addresses the lack of responsibility that parents have with their children. In other words, the “Ruin” that we are sitting on is a culture that is dying, and Marshall wonders why we are content with it. The truth is that “Ruin” has yet a third meaning — it’s a call to personal responsibility, a recurring theme of the entire album.
Ms. Marshall gets personal again on “3,6,9” letting us in on her darkness – “I feel tired/awake all night/head so heavy like a wastebasket/I feel choke, emotionally broke/in the gutter and I’m still looking down.” Unfortunately for her, the friend/lover that she looks to for support and consolation offers no comfort or help. And that leads right to the next track, “Always on my Own,” which is self-explanatory. It’s the shortest track on the record and musically the most minimal.
On “Real Life,” Marshall offers a litany of characters who find themselves wanting to shirk their responsibilities and commitments in order to follow other desires — “I met a doctor, he want to be a dancer/I met a mother, she want to be alone/I met a preacher, he want to be sinister/I met a kid, he wants to be unknown.” Marshall acknowledges that we all get tempted and we all get tired, but she warns against the sort of thinking, which suggests that happiness is found in running from our struggles. She reminds us that “real life is ordinary” and acknowledges that “sometimes you don’t wanna live,” but she insists that, “sometimes you gotta do what you don’t wanna do/to get away with an unordinary life.” Theologically speaking, Ms. Marshall has described the Paschal Mystery — it’s in going through the cross, not running from it, that one finds (extraordinary) life.
Marshall plays prophet on “Human Being,” as she sings to someone who has been paralyzed by fear, or something worse. Over a haunting and indicting synth-bass riff she makes her case, “You’re a human being/you got your own voice, so sing/you got two hands, let’s go and make anything.” It could very well be that Marshall is singing to herself.
Songs about New York City tend to be good – I’m thinking of Sinatra, P.J. Harvey, U2, and Jay-Z & Alicia Keys. Add Cat Power’s “Manhattan” to the list. The electronic beat is paced like a swift, late-night walk down Seventh Avenue, accompanied by three charming notes that send Marshall’s voice out and then call it back in, like aerobic breathing. Manhattan symbolizes stability and permanence, offering a context and backdrop for all the action in the city, which is anything but stable or permanent.
“Silent Machine” was pulled from the Cat Power vault and recreated for “Sun”. An acoustic version from 1998 can be found on Youtube, yet the latest version fits the vibe of the new album. It begins with a cool Black Keys-type feel and then progresses into Chan Marshall, 2012.
The masterpiece of the record is the 11-minute “Nothin’ but Time,” a song which manifests maternal comfort and encouragement — “I see you kid alone in your room/you got the world on your mind and you’re trying to get by/you’re world is just beginning, and I know this life seems never ending/but you’ve got nothing but time.” Unlike the first 10 tracks of the album, the focus of this song is not Marshall, or her brokenness, or the broken world. She is focused on another, in love. In a recent interview with NPR, Marshall explained that she wrote “Nothin’ but Time” for her ex-boyfriend’s teenage daughter. Based on two simple chords, it’s far more than a pep talk or some cliché Hallmark prose — it’s a full-on mother’s embrace.
The 40-year-old Marshall has no children of her own, but told “GQ” magazine earlier this month that one of her dreams was to be a mother, going so far as to consider naming her future son, Boaz — Boaz Mexico. John Paul II claimed that every woman is a spiritual mother, regardless of biological children. “Nothing but Time” gives evidence that the late pontiff is on to something.
Marshall had a strained relationship with her own mother, so on “Nothing but Time” she seems to be singing to herself too, offering counsel that perhaps she wishes she would have received as a young woman: “Never give away/never give away your body/never/never give away all your friends/never never give you what always wanted/never never give in.”
“Sun” is not an album of optimism — it’s an album of hope. Marshall sugarcoats nothing. She confirms the darkness and pain of the fallen world as well as the ache of a broken heart with precision, but she doesn’t despair. Somehow she knows that death doesn’t have the final answer, even when it feels like it does. Charlyn Marie Marshall, like her doppelganger Joan of Arc, knows that battles can only be won if you fight. She tells us as much on the album’s final track, “I’m a lover but I’m in it to win.” On “Sun,” Marshall fights like a warrior, and she’s not alone in the battle.
Father Damian Ference is a priest in the diocese of Cleveland. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the formation faculty at the Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio.