“It’s up to you to be a superhero / It’s up to you to be like nobody,” sings Chan Marshall on Sun’s penultimate song, Nothin but Time: a very different sentiment to the kind that peppered 2006’s The Greatest, her last album of original material.
On that record’s most striking moments, Marshall sounded weary and mired in longing, her voice set against a rich backdrop of Memphis soul and Delta blues. Six years later it’s all about self-empowerment for the singer – Sun was played, produced and recorded almost entirely by Marshall herself. It exemplifies, as she puts it: “Don’t look back, pick up, and go confidently into your own future, to personal power and fulfilment.”
As such, the smoky, languid arrangements of The Greatest and 2008’s Jukebox are cast aside in favour of a bright electronic sheen which is most apparent on Sun’s title track, a pulsating collage of multi-tracked vocals and synth. It takes a few listens and a pair of headphones to really settle in; likewise the strobing electronics of Real Life, over which Marshall expounds the virtues of an “unordinary life”. If there is nothing here as instantly transfixing as some of her past work, Sun comes alive on closer listening, revealing myriad depths and unexpected vocal turns.
When this production nous is matched to songs like the breathless travelogue Ruin, the spooky Always on My Own or the warped romp Silent Machine, Sun makes for fine listening. Like Fiona Apple with The Idler Wheel…, Marshall has evidently rediscovered her sense of adventure – though while Apple accomplished this by stripping her music almost bare, Marshall has done so by revelling in the flourishes, the particulars.
Perhaps because of this, Sun is ultimately lacking as a cohesive LP. Nothin But Time stretches itself over 11 minutes (not even a cameo by a patriarchal Iggy Pop can stop it straying into over-indulgence), while the closing Peace and Love sounds like something from another record entirely; too vampy, too busy to make an impact.
Sun remains a brave and adventurous change in direction, but in not playing to her strengths and focusing on the minutiae instead of the bigger picture, Marshall is shorn of the intangible magic and emotional force she can summon at her best.
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