Suicide wallpaper. That should be right: background music that keeps you up at night.
And yet. Wallpaper gets a bad rap, because it’s two-dimensional and decorative and lower-middle-class. Background doesn’t get much respect either, like something that doesn’t hustle you for every fiber of your attention’s less serious or ambitious or meaning-laden: shit for the chillout room. Like you’re either sex or you’re perfume.
Plus, suicide in the context of art, especially female confessional style, is by now overwrought and tired. Sylvia Plath came and went and that emotional capital got spent.
Suicide wallpaper should be just about right for Cat Power. But it’s not going to do. So let’s say the songs of Chan Marshall, who is Cat Power, make you want to start over. They leave you with the sense that you didn’t even get the hearing of them right, much less the describing. I mean they’re weird. Not peacock hermetic like Tori Amos, not look at the crackpot! weird like Jad Fair or Doctor Octagon. Uncanny. That was Sigmund’s word for intimate female space, the field but not the flowers. Uncanny, like having one of the weird sisters for a lover.
Most of the songs on Moon Pix are brutally simple: one or two guitar strings, just enough to suggest a chord. Sometimes the chord changes. Sometimes there is a drummer who barely plays. And then there is the disturbing voice that does not raise.
“Big monster,” begins “Back of Your Head,” maybe the most representative song on the record. “Big monster lover. Bigger pusher over”—repeating the words and the sounds of the words, repeating the few notes of melody and minimal guitar figure, adding just a little, trying to expand insistently into something awful. It gets someplace, but where? “Couldn’t park that fucking car, couldn’t part from you. Saw the back of your sweet mother’s head, now I know that she thinks I’m dead.”
One has a suspicion—on a record that aches with suspicion—that the speaker is indeed dead. That’s why the music is a suicide. No matter how strange or how awful things get there it never lifts into shock or celebration, rage or howling despair. Those all come before. On Moon Pix it is always after, as if everything had already happened. Which doesn’t leave much. Dull jewel of a voice. Extreme gray noise.
There is nonetheless one utterly lovely melody on this record which trades in everything but. In “Colors and the Kids,” nodding toward prettiness, she exchanges her guitar for a piano. Even so, she replicates the same simplicity, a crude one-handed part. “Must be the colors and the kids that keep me alive,” she begins, “’cause the music is boring me to death.” What’s that I hear—a straight line? The masochism boggles the mind.
But who offers it up? Marshall throws the personal voice into unfixable selves; another song begins “I been a moonshiner for 17 long years.” “Colors and the Kids” slips through selves like acid through butter: “I built a shack with an old friend,” she says at one point. “He was someone I could become.” Dissolve to an abstract series of panorama and trace. “We wanted to be the sky, now all we want to do is go to red places.” This is senile dementia from the inside, the wandering drive into dream, the weird loveliness of having stayed alive.
It’s hard to concentrate on a Cat Power album straight through. Not so much because it’s sonically morbid—that’s the part I like. But the somber flatness, the mostly-monochrome which means to make meaning, can get too much. Imitative fallacy, it’s called, that thing dragging down “No Sense” and “You May Know Him.” Sometimes dullness is just dull, and aimlessness tires. Sometimes Cat Power’s miniature sky is filled with Mazzy Stars.
Yeah yeah, it’s supposed to mesmerize and haunt. But if you stare too long it can start to seem vacant.
You’re not supposed to stare. That’s the whole secret of Cat Power, of music that’s not all up in your attention-nerve. Chan Marshall writes these terrifically intimate songs, sometimes disturbingly so, but she’s not putting on the damage, not doing display. Her songs assume you’re looking the other way.
Which means I had it wrong. It can’t be wallpaper because it’s not about appearance at all; she herself is reputed to spend considerable stagetime with her back turned to the crowd’s face. But still the voice leaks out into the atmosphere, inexorably fills the available space.
Maybe I’d like to call it integumental music—how in its steady, insistent pushing it comes to occupy the space between things, as you’re looking out the window or even at the wall. It’s music that doesn’t believe in being saved—the few moments of “Amazing Grace” buried in “Metal Heart” aren’t even ironic, just softly cruel. Still, the song fills up the last part of the night, the one that is purely yours, fills it just enough to sustain those gray hours.