Chan Marshall’s last album of original material opened with the line “Once I wanted to be the greatest,” which tells you most everything you need to know not just about The Greatest, but the tenor of Marshall’s songwriting. Wistful, reflective, looking to the past for answers—right down to the legendary Stax studio musicians in her backing band. There’s history in every breath, every action imbued with remembering. Sun’s different. This is the sound of Marshall pushing herself out into the light instead of lurking by a pool table, of dancing on tables in some scenario that doesn’t involve living in bars. Sunlight doesn’t always equate to “happiness,” but a brighter place always gives you an opportunity to see yourself and your situation more clearly. The album’s been hailed as a kind of emotional breakthrough, but it seems more likely that it’s a side of Marshall that was always there, now no longer obscured by dust motes and lingering smoke.
Marshall still manages to wring pathos out of her work, if not to the same degree and not in the same way. As a rule, songs concerned with working through struggles are more likely to invoke a greater degree of empathy in a listener than songs that are upbeat and self-possessed. Those have a tendency to bleed together, message-wise (like the good ol’ Anna Karenina adage “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”), but it’s hard not to root for—or be inspired—by Marshall’s sorta-optimisitic turn on Sun. MySpace blogs of the early millennium are no doubt littered with Marshall meltdown/ can’t-believe-I-wasted-my-money-on-that-show stories, but precious little of that mercurial, emotionally volatile streak shows up here. She sounds confident, eyes trained on the horizon. On “Cherokee,” she begs to be married to the sky (complete with eagle scream); backed by cicada-mimicking synths on “Human Being,” she points out the necessity (and difficulty) of needing to live and act independently. Even the emotionally fraught “3, 6, 9” gets packed into the tight framework of a sing-song playground taunt, though you can see the past through the cracks as the vocorder-ed multi-tracked vocals spiral into an unnerving coda where the only words are “fuck me.”
That’s not the only slick studio trick going on here, but fortunately these come off as ambitious rather than gimmicky. Marshall’s beloved blues and soul influences aren’t far beneath the surface, in the sense that these songs are connected to place, have a love/hate relationship with self-reliance, and are inextricably connected to the present—but instead of looking backwards for answers they’re chin up, eyes forward. Early single “Ruin” picks up where You Are Free’s “Fool” left off, an examination of both personal and world history that plays with a couple of connotations for the word “ruin,” chastising those who would simultaneously complain and destroy, as well as our drive to blaze through the world, sitting atop our past without paying it proper homage.
It’s an apt song to have written in Miami, a city that seems sparkly and modern, but is actually one of the oldest settlements in America. Miami has a rich history that has, for the most part, either been polished to a high gloss or patched over with stucco, thongs and new money—a fitting origin for an album that’s mostly optimistic, but still casts some shadows. Jukebox stomper “Silent Machine” is rife with relationship scar tissue, but ultimately seems ready to move on, kick ass, and not dwell on the past: “In the name of the father but never the ghost.” Life lessons learned get packaged into advice to younger women on Marshall’s hang-in-there anthem “Nothin’ But Time,” a sort of “Hey Jude” to her ex-beau Giovanni Ribisi’s teenage daughter—complete with backing vocals courtesy of Iggy Pop.
On You Are Free’s “I Don’t Blame You,” Marshall sang “Just because they knew your name/ Doesn’t mean they know from where you came”; on Sun’s pleasantly oily closer “Peace and Love,” she updates and slightly twists the sentiment, saying “100,000 hits on the Internet/ Don’t mean shit.” This is a mindset only young upstarts and old timers share, and if Sun is any indication, Marshall’s somehow currently straddling the two career extremes. With no group with which to readily identify, being in the middle can be stressful—but the process of reconciling two extremes mindsets is a catalyst for breakthrough self-reflection and a breeding ground for great art. Let’s hear it for Medial Marshall, because this brand of dual citizenship completely works for her.