We all knew a change was coming. Chan Marshall, the gloomy indie heroine who would be well cast in a David Lynch movie, has spent the past two years detoxing both mind and liver and fessing up to it in the press. “I’m just so happy to be alive,” she told Spin magazine in late 2006, ten months after canceling a world tour for her critically revered last album, The Greatest. Marshall got so low, she explained, she wasn’t even depressed anymore: “You’ve just given up. There’s nothing inside you that’s good.”
Since then, Marshall has gone from two Xanax and a bottle of Scotch a day to a tablespoon of vodka in her pineapple juice on special occasions. She’s given a series of sane, inspired concerts, contrasting with the neurotic, rambling affairs that grated on even her most loyal fans. Now, with her new band, the Dirty Delta Blues, she releases her eighth album, Jukebox, a more composed sequel to her 2000 release, The Covers Record.
But old-time fans need not bemoan the sobriety of their messy idol. Jukebox, while breezier in mood, carries with it Marshall’s honest-to-goodness melancholy. The album opens with “New York, New York,” a hoary chestnut that Marshall handles without irony: The drums of Jim White (formerly of the Australian band the Dirty Three) tap happily in an unchanging time throughout, and Judah Bauer’s (from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) guitar warbles as Marshall coolly delivers the lyric that has concluded thousands of Yankees games: “It’s up to you, New York, New York.” On “Metal Heart,” a redo of her own 1998 tune, Marshall injects a bit of “Amazing Grace,” sounding big and triumphant as she blasts, “I once was lost but now I’m found.” But the new version hasn’t lost its original elusiveness: The vocals echo more than usual and crack in high ranges, somewhere between a child’s cry and a grown woman’s ecstasy, keeping us guessing whether Marshall really wants to be found.
When Cat Power’s breakthrough album, What Will the Community Think, was released, in 1996, Marshall was neither an anomaly in the music world nor a disciple of anyone in particular. Back then, for every Mariah Carey there was a brooding second-wave feminist wielding a guitar. Mazzy Star had wooed an audience of proud goth loners; Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville had changed female sexuality as the world knew it, and PJ Harvey was drawing crowds with her low-voiced, urban guitar soul. Elsewhere in pop culture, Natalie Portman evolved from a child femme fatale in The Professional to a suburban Lolita in Beautiful Girls, and disenfranchised teens were mourning Claire Danes’s irreverent alterna-girl Angela Chase on the doomed 1994 TV drama My So-Called Life. Chan Marshall seemed to embody a volatile combination of all of the above.
Jukebox arrives in a world of Little Miss Sunshines, Junos, and Gilmore Girls (R.I.P.). The despondency that marked Cat Power and her ilk has been replaced with playful cynicism. Kate Nash, today’s “It” girl of home-brewed stardom, is a voluptuous redhead who wears belted frocks and raps sweet proclamations like “I just want your kiss, boy.” Nash’s album Made of Bricks, which debuted at No. 1 in the U.K., is like an adolescent’s diary: confessional, a tad dirty, and bereft of any genuine analysis. Jukebox seems like it’s written in an entirely different language.
In the nineties, Marshall presented a true-blue East Village personality—grungy, glamorous, hands on, messy. And like the East Village, she is richer and slicker than she was back then—a minor brouhaha recently erupted online over a fake mole on Marshall’s cheek in a few press photos (like the one above). But nobody ought to worry that Marshall will go all Avril on us like Liz Phair did when she hired Lavigne’s team in 2003 to make her into a chart favorite. With Jukebox, Marshall has buckled down and faced her demons—even if for the grand purpose of continuing to summon them.