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 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, Wanderer, feels weathered, but from a place of reflection. Its titular song has a devotional quality which seems to indicate some semblance of inner peace.
The same cannot be said for her 1998 opus, Moon Pix. Released just over 20 years ago, Moon Pix established Chan Marshall as a singular figure in music, with a unique blend of blues, rock and soul that is wholly hers. The sonic directions it takes are often unexpected; her guitar lines slide queasily out of time and nothing feels settled, except for that voice. It feels beamed out of another universe, dreamlike in its haze 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 repeatedly: 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 with an almost Biblical combination of the supernatural and the real.
Accordingly, Moon Pix is defined by its ambiguity. Even down to its creation, the line between Marshall indulging darkness and genuinely experiencing demons breaking down her door remains artfully, nightmarishly blurred. Much like PJ Harvey’s equally brilliant Is This Desire? of the same year, it is not at the peak of the conflict, but for the before and after. One emerges from the album with a profound sense of disquiet and awe, like watching an impending storm, the thunder of which breaks out at the end of Say. Little auditory elements add to the sense of foreboding: the childlike, circular piano melody of Colour and the Kids is suffocating in its repetition. A nauseating flute is tethered to He Turns Down, accenting the song with impressionistic menace. On opener American Flag, at one point the song sounds like it’s fallen apart entirely, with her guitar and the drums (played by Jim White of Australian trio 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!’, her voice curdled with horror by what she’s summoning. This is as much a Southern Gothic album as it is ‘indie rock’, more indebted to the feverish hymns of Marshall’s Baptist upbringing than anything else.
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, her multi-tracked voice thick with loneliness. It begins to gain confidence, drums appearing to add forward motion, her endless harmonies swooping 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 stumbles to its conclusion, wounded, but on its feet.
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 amusing, perhaps indebted to the cheerfully braggadocious strain of hip hop which was gaining traction in the late 90s. Marshall later explained that the song was written about child diamond miners she met in Africa, who had witnessed their parents murdered in front of their eyes.
You have seen some unbelievable things
Moon Pix didn’t start a trend in the same way many great albums do. It didn’t create a subgenre, or have a real wide-reaching impact on popular culture. In being untethered to any scene or movement, it retains a startling imprint all of its own. Cat Power would go on to release more popular, accessible music (and much of it is brilliant) but she would never reach the ominous peaks of this album. I don’t blame her. Some headspaces aren’t meant to be returned to.
Going into 2019, the world can feel like we are, in fact, ‘already in hell’. All year long, we have seen ghosts of buried histories and silenced narratives emerge, from widely ignored, institutionalised sexual harassment of women, to an abhorrent 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 aesthetic of the album, which carves life out of negative space. It could be reflective of the songs themselves, starkly beautiful and unsafe. It could also be a reflection of Power’s artistry: how it makes most sense when observed from a distance, like a dollar store photo in an attic. That’s the thing about great artists: the closer you get to them (and the more they reveal), the less you really know.