“Real life is ordinary,” Chan Marshall sings halfway through her ninth album – and she makes it sound like hard-won wisdom, because you can hear in Marshall’s voice how fiercely she had to fight just to make it to real life. Marshall produced Sun herself, in the wake of what seems like one brutal breakup. She doesn’t try to repeat the retro Memphis R&B of her 2006 indie hit The Greatest, or the late-night spider-guitar shambles of her classic 1990s albums. Instead, she goes for gospel-via-disco uplift, layering her trancelike vocal chants over synth beats full of eerie beauty. It’s like she’s trying to give Joni Mitchell‘s Blue the pop glimmer of Madonna‘s Like a Prayer.
“Manhattan” broods over vanished relationships (“All the friends that we used to know/Ain’t coming back”), with Marshall’s smoky purr floating over an ominous piano loop. “Nothing But Time” comes on like a sequel to David Bowie‘s “Heroes,” banging away for 11 minutes with two chords and help from guest guru Iggy Pop. Marshall has always been one of the most emotionally intense songwriters around, but with Sun she has made her riskiest, most vital album, not to mention one of her greatest. Who would have guessed this indie basket case would toughen up into such a soulful adult?