It’s somewhat reductive to think about Cat Power’s new single, “Ruin,” as a turn toward more upbeat emotional territory. The song does forgo the glacial pace and tortured introspection that’s often associated with Chan Marshall’s work, but there’s still a bite to the vocal delivery and a pensive quality to the piano that drives the song.
If “Ruin” doesn’t quite provide the brightness suggested by the title of Sun, the forthcoming album that the single will appear on, it does find Marshall extending her gaze outward and seemingly finding strength in the act of looking beyond her own inner life.
Though Marshall does catalogue her personal travels, it’s not until she juxtaposes these destinations with images of her own town that the gravity of her words sinks in. Her return home is met by “Bitching, complaining when some people ain’t got nothing to eat,” which lends emotional weight to the preceding list of Second and Third World countries. Here, it’s as if Marshall is waging war with the pettiness of self-pity.
By the time clattering percussion enters in midway through the song, “Ruin” begins to feel like a call to arms against apathy. The idea comes full circle with the refrain “What are we doing?/We’re sitting on a ruin,” a couplet that seems to speak to the preciousness of each passing moment and of every place we visit.
There’s the sense that Marshall is questioning the morality and myopia of focusing on one’s own personal turmoil when the world around us is bursting with both suffering and beauty, from the pain experienced by those starving in the poorest of places to the fabric of history that lives in the dirt of even the most banal settings.