Chan Marshall (AKA Cat Power) seems to have pulled herself out of the self-destruction that has destroyed some of the greatest musicians of her generation. At least we can hope so. Aside from her 2008 covers record Jukebox and her 2006 record The Greatest, Marshall has been remarkably silent. Jukebox was disappointing and The Greatest was a sort of Dusty Springfield homage where Marshall seemed to be reconnecting to her musical roots.
"Ruin," the first listen from Sun (due Sept. 4 on Matador), listens as cypher-ish as most of The Greatest. As if Marshall had suddenly discovered what was happening in music for the past two years, "Ruin" grounds itself in an upbeat piano track with some kind of disco-sounding percussion and a slick guitar riff that sounds like it got left on the cutting room floor of a session by The Rapture.
It's not a difficult listen by any account. In fact, the bubbly sound greets those who know Cat Power's work with that same unease that her last few releases have: "I mean, I'm not saying that its bad."
Yeah, okay, so it's different. And I have to say that on the first listen, I can't help but connect this to Elliott Smith's Figure 8, a troublesome album in itself. Perhaps the problem is we like our tortured people to stay tortured. Which can lead to tragedy. Not knowing Marshall personally, I can only speak from the records, which seem to speak to her (at least perceived) frailties and failings. The closest I ever came to meeting her was at a concert in Austin somewhere around the release of The Greatest where Marshall did some of the most uncomfortable dancing I have ever seen and followed it up by turning "I Don't Blame You" from 2003's gem You Are Free into a disembowelment of whoever had ordered her touring piano. So, it was rather easy to read some of her personal problems into the music.
But, doing so remains a dangerous proposition. More dangerous even than dismissing a record or being overly critical after hearing one track. For songwriters who have the courage to let us in so close to themselves, can we as an audience be upset when suddenly it feels like we're being blocked out? "Ruin" feels like a distancing more than anything else. And, I don't mind that Chan/Cat is doing that to us. Music isn't therapy. Not for us and not, hopefully, for the artists. It's not there to make us get better or feel better. I'd love it if I could tell you what music is -- the first two associations (thank you, Freud) are imagination and expression -- but, I don't have an answer. All I know is that what separates it is intent. To read a new record (Cat Power or otherwise) with an exclusively psychological take is unfair.
The razors edge is that introspective songwriting, more than any other, makes us feel as if we do know a person. Which, of course, we don't. So as listeners gearing up by a new record by someone we think we do, but don't, we should be aware of the pitfalls of fandom and how we can get in the way of what someone else is trying to tell us.