Who would ever mistake Cat Power for Adele? Explaining in interviews earlier in the year why she wasn’t releasing her new record, Wanderer, on her longtime label, Matador, the singer-songwriter, real name Chan Marshall, said it was in large part because it didn’t have hits. The label wanted her to re-record the album, and one Matador executive apparently came to visit Marshall during the Wanderer sessions to play her Adele’s 25, telling her “this is how a record is supposed to sound.”
If Marshall’s stories are true, it paints a hilarious picture of corporate tone-deafness. Who could possibly listen to records like Sun and What Would the Community Think and imagine that Chan Marshall would be interested, let alone able to tap into the same kind of MOR well that Adele has been drinking from for years? The once-reclusive singer-songwriter is far too singular and off-kilter to make something that could fit comfortably on a Clear Channel playlist.
This has been a fairly eventful year for the Georgia songbird. In addition to changing labels, she’s put out her 10th album, a record that could double as a sampler and summation of all the stylistic shifts she’s taken over the years. The sparseness of her earlier records, the shift into electronic textures on Sun, the way her voice can contort itself to convey ecstatic bliss as easily as it can plumb the depths of crushing sadness: It’s all there on Wanderer. And while the record will never be mistaken for 25, it does feature a few hat tips to the pop zeitgeist with a Rihanna cover and a Lana Del Rey collab.
But 2018 is also significant because it marks the 20th anniversary of Chan Marshall’s masterwork: Moon Pix.
Recorded in Melbourne with Mick Turner and Jim White (two-thirds of Australia’s instrumental group The Dirty Trio), Marshall’s fourth studio album was inspired by a vivid nightmare she experienced while staying in a farmhouse in South Carolina. Even if you didn’t know the backstory to the record, you can hear it all over Moon Pix: It’s a nocturnal, somber record. The songs are like sleepwalkers, propelled by an unconscious momentum.
As on all her records, the most striking aspect of Moon Pix is Marshall’s voice. On album opener “American Flag” (which features a drum sample of the Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere” played
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Marshall injects heartbreak and longing and sadness into her songs with an expressiveness that few other singers can match. Moon Pix is the sound of late-night regrets, the inner monologue of someone cycling through all their hopes and fears and hesitations while their head is on the pillow and sleep is moments away from overtaking them.
Moon Pix is also an enduring album for its twilight slowcore sound. Guitar chords hang suspended in the mix like a drop of water beading on a cracked pipe, drum beats tap and ring out in slow motion. Even compared to fellow sultans of slow like Codeine and Low, Moon Pix feels especially spare.
While other artists have drawn inspiration from the somnambulant folk of Moon Pix (Nicole Dollanganger’s Natural Born Losers comes close to capturing that magic), the record is ultimately as inimitable and specific as a dream. It’s one of the many reasons why Chan Marshall will never be an Adele-level pop diva. Adele may sing like a dream, but Cat Power is more interested in sounding like she’s singing while she’s in the middle of one.