If music making is intertwined with mythologising, Cat Power is practically a religious icon. Ever since the release of What Would The Community Think in 1996, more than any other singer-songwriter of her era, her music (and thus, her image) has come to define a specific kind of tortured honesty. This extends to her personal life too: following a tormented run in the 2000s, which culminated in several nervous breakdowns, Marshall is thankfully in a better place. Her most recent album, Sun, feels weary, weathered, but from a place of reflection and maturity. She has a new album out this year, and its lead single has a devotional quality which seemed to indicate the semblance of inner peace. The same cannot be said for her 1998 opus, Moon Pix, which manages to sound both delicate and like she’s livestreaming a breakdown. There’s something ‘off’ about the record: the sonic directions it takes are often unexpected and nauseating, her guitar lines slide queasily out of time and nothing feels settled, except for that voice. It feels beamed out of another universe, dreamlike yet remarkable in its clarity of feeling.
IT FEELS BEAMED OUT OF ANOTHER UNIVERSE, DREAMLIKE YET REMARKABLE IN ITS CLARITY OF FEELING.
For music so untouchable, Moon Pix has a surprisingly literal inception. She has explained the inspiration behind the record in many interviews: in 1997, while she was living with then-boyfriend Bill Callahan in a South Carolina farmhouse, she experienced a hallucination of ‘150 trillion spirits pressing against my glass, trying to get in’. She picked up her guitar in panic and composed half of the album’s songs in that night. She described the album in the same interview as the songs being ‘evidence’ more than anything else. Marshall’s wording is key: she tells this story as if she would not survive the experience. And taking into account the very haunted music which follows, the listener has full reason to believe her.
SHE PICKED UP HER GUITAR IN PANIC AND COMPOSED HALD OF THE ALBUM'S SONGS IN THAT NIGHT.
Moon Pix is defined by ambiguity. Even down to its creation, the line between Marshall indulging darkness and genuinely experiencing demons breaking down her door remains artfully, nightmarishly blurred. Listening to it is akin to driving on a dark night and watching ghost towns flash past your periphery. Much like PJ Harvey’s equally brilliant Is This Desire of the same year, this is music not at the peak of the conflict, but for the before and after. One emerges from the album with a profound sense of disquiet, but also of awe, my first response hearing the sounds of storm breaking in sinister fashion at the end of Say. Little auditory elements add to the sense of foreboding: the childlike, circular piano melody of Colour and the Kids evokes a music box stuck on repeat. A nauseating flute is tethered to He Turns Down, an uncomfortable itch the song won’t scratch. On opener American Flag, at one point the song sounds like it’s fallen apart, with her guitar and the drums (played by Jim White of Dirty Three, all of whom are present on the album) collapsing in and out of sync. Towards the end of country standard Moonshiner, Marshall yells ‘You’re already in hell!’ in such nasty fashion, you can hear her muscle of her vocal cords strain to hit the note. This is as much a Southern Gothic album as it is ‘indie rock’, as much haunted by the unspoken dark legacy of the South as it is by the blues music it borrows heavily from.
ONE EMERGES FROM THE ALBUM WITH A PROFOUND SENSE OF DISQUIET, BUT ALSO OF AWE.
Metal Heart, as argued by many Cat Power fans, is her opus (she went as far as to cover it for a future record). It starts with several staggered, interweaving guitar lines, mumbling lowly about loss and duplicity. It begins to gain confidence, the drums adding forward motion and her endless harmonies like moths around her guitar.
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Marshall manages to paraphrase Amazing Grace and make it uncertain instead of comforting. The song ends, stumbling and abrupt, wounded but on its feet. Of all the songs on the album, this is the one which feels most connected to that nightmarish evening of creation.
Cross Bones Style is the best song on the album. Headed by a magnetic, constantly shifting guitar line, Marshall weaves a Carver-esque narrative of jewels and coal and eyes, in just 11 lines. The drums slide in and out of time as the same lines are repeated in seemingly random order. This is tied together with a strange, sexy video, in which Marshall hypnotically dances against a white background, wearing yellow nail polish.
Hater, I have your diamonds
Taken out of context, this seems almost comical, perhaps an appropriation of a rap boast. Marshall later explained that the song was written about child diamond miners, who witnessed their parents murdered in front of their eyes.
You have seen some unbelievable things
20 years later, Cat Power remains a peerless figure in music, yet her reach can be elementally felt in 2018. Lana Del Rey is a predecessor, sharing her sadcore aesthetic and her singular female perspective (Del Rey will feature on her new album). The same could be said for (Sandy) Alex G, whose murky Americana storytelling is in line with the atmosphere of this album. Beach House, in capturing huge emotion with simple, pithy storytelling owe her a debt too.
With that said, Moon Pix didn’t start a trend in the same way many great albums do. It didn’t start a subgenre, or have wide reaching impact on popular culture. In being untethered to any scene or movement, it retains a startling imprint all of its own, and thank God for that. Cat Power would go on to release more popular, accessible music (and much of it is brilliant) but she would never reach the thundering peaks of this album. I don’t blame her. Some headspaces should not be revisited.
IN BEING UNTETHERED TO ANY SCENE OR MOVEMENT, IT RETAINS A STARLING IMPRINT ALL OF ITS OWN, AND THANK GOD FOR THAT
Going into 2018, the world can feel like a confrontation with some of the darkest parts of humanity, especially in the American South. All year long, we have seen ghosts of buried histories and silenced narratives emerge, from the widely ignored sexual harassment of women in the workplace, to an abysmal, 30s-esque resurgence of anti-immigrant rhetoric, to a corrupt police system which proves time and time again to disproportionately target black communities. Moon Pix feels like an exorcism, and an exorcism could be what we need right now. After all, as Marshall has proven, once you stare down the darkness, you can move forward into the light.
In the vinyl edition of the album, the track names are randomly dotted around an eerie black and white photo of cacti, which itself is framed like a picture. It could be a nod to the desolate, desert-like aesthetic of the album. It could be reflective of the music itself, beautiful but barbed. It could also be a reflection of Power’s artistry: how it is best understood from a distance, like a dollar store painting in an attic. That’s the thing about great artists: the closer you get to them, the less you really know.