In this age of blogs and breaking tweets, facebook blasts, TMZ scoops, and wikipedia, is there any history which isn’t personal? Any perspective of national, global, historical importance not filtered through the observant, candid, lonely, bitter, bruised, bemused, indignant anonymous intimacy of a solitary first person?
Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet set the model, in literary terms, for this trend—four books all chronicling the same general characters and events in a particular city, all rendered in four completely disparate, astonishingly diverse monographs from the points of view of four different participants in the drama. The “truth” of events is only gleaned in the aggregate, at the end of the tale after all the accounts have been told, and only then in the small details, the forgotten passages, the lies the characters tell to each other and themselves.
In the first book, Justine, he dismisses journalism as “Facts about Acts,” but today that definition seems far from accurate. Facts are as malleable as clay—the same story can be twisted by the ass clowns of Fox News into something misshapen and unrecognizable compared to the version posted on The Daily Show, Salon or Gawker. We all pretty much accept there is no official version, only the version we want to believe.
Cat Power’s Moon Pix, at first listen a dangerously intimate, sparse, smoky gaze into the very soul of a broken chanteuse, cannot escape a claim to extreme first person journalism, cryptic and mesmerizing at it is. This is what you get when your lead-off cut is a song called “American Flag.”
Recorded in Melbourne, Australia, the album is nonetheless suffused with a doomed romantic evocation of the Strange, Weird America and its underbelly musical past—deep hollow folk songs, murder ballads, acoustic guitars reverberating endlessly in the empty desert night—all complements of Dirty Three’s Mick Turner and Jim White who formed her backing band for the album.
This motif isn’t just a feel thing; American musical history is woven into the fabric of the songs themselves. “Metal Heart” interpolates “Amazing Grace,” turning it into a beautiful, aching mantra of personal awakening. “Moonshiner,” with its echoes of a folk-country ballad, is credited as “inspired by Robert Zimmerman,” and the brief closer, “Peking Saint,” employs a “traditional” Chinese melody, beautifully slowed for acoustic guitar, that recalls the cliché sounds used to depict “Chinamen” in American movies since the twenties—from Charlie Chan to opium dens to Timmie Rogers’ “Chum Goy” to Calgon commercials.
The scrapbook-like clues work their way into the album art as well. The sleeve depicts a full portrait of a cactus and yucca laden desert vista, which may be Australia, but in this context looks a lot like the mythical American Southwest. Layered on top is a blurry picture of Bob Dylan singing inside and old TV set. The back cover shows an old photo of a Civil War company of black soldiers, incredibly moving without any words attached. And finally, the record itself is festooned with a small portrait of John Coltrane next to childlike symbols which we realize finally are Marshall’s own guitar tunings—as personal a revelation, and as potent a declaration of personal history—as a musician gets.
As with any good chronicle, it’s the small details that astonish. The lithe flute solo of “He Turns Down” lifted straight from a King Crimson record or a turn-the-page-at-the-music children’s storybook; the unexpected Radiohead-esque bassline propelling “Cross Bones Style” at the end of an otherwise low-key production, hazy as a beach glimpsed through mist, sparse as a midnight rock garden.
Throughout, Marshall’s haunting, pointed, alternately broken-hearted and confrontational lyrics keep us transfixed, trying to fill in the details, to tell her story for ourselves. We may never get the “Facts about Acts” she describes, but we’ll stay and listen again and again.
Like she sings in “Colors and the Kids,” I could stay here, become someone different. I could stay here… become someone better…”
CAT POWER MOON PIX, 1998, Matador