Tuesday, November 6, 2018
Cat Power 'Wanderer' is a stunning masterpiece from Chan Marhsall
Imagine a wanderer, and you'll probably conjure images of an aimless solo traveller, trudging along a dusty, sun-beaten track, guitar slung over one shoulder; it's a word synonymous with rootlessness, with the rejection of a fixed home, certainty and structure. For Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, her tenth studio album is an exercise in paying "reverence to the people who did this generations before me. Folk singers, blues singers, and everything in between."
And Marshall, the daughter of a blues musician whose profession required regular relocation throughout her childhood in the south, really has lived this life. In adulthood, more than 25 years of writing, recording, producing, and touring music hasn't made for a stable or predictable lifestyle, either, and Marshall's erratic on and off-stage behaviour has received plenty of scrutiny over the years. It has seemed as though uncertainty itself has been the only constant—even something she has courted, or needed.
Marshall's musical output has seen her morph from experimental folk to indie rock to upbeat electronica, all underpinned by her signature blues and soul influence, lyrical vulnerability, and reliably high quality. Her last album, 2012's Sun, was Marshall's biggest mainstream success to date, not that you could really label much of her work as inaccessible in the grand scheme of things.
But evidently Wanderer presented too big a problem or risk—too light on "hits," maybe, or too sparsely and acoustically orchestrated—for her label of 20 years, Matador, and this release comes instead courtesy of Domino. Self-written (bar one cover) and self-produced, and many years in the making, Wanderer as a rejected record could have become a crisis or a millstone.
Yet it's supremely confident and calm. Go on just its title and press pack and you'll be steeling yourself for an album of unanswered questions and indecision—but you won't find those here. Rather, it's a reflection of her "journey so far," told from a position of conviction, balance, and autonomy. As she sings on "You Get," "there's nothing like time to teach you where you have been."
The a cappella opener "Wanderer" channels a troubadour singing for their board and lodging. It's strong but ethereal, and there's something moving in the fact that Marshall's fellow singers on this track are many layers of her—the sense of triumphant togetherness gently undermined once you listen closely enough. "In Your Face" might as well be a letter directly to President Donald Trump, albeit the most beautiful and intricately arranged hate mail he'd ever be lucky enough to receive. Over a barely—there bossanova beat and infrequent piano arabesques, Marshall mocks his flamboyance—"In the age of the military/You are engaged in fanfare activity"—and the disconnect between him and the people: "You feel so above the hunger on the streets/With your safe and your document in its place/Your money, your gun/Your conscience sweet like honey."
"Woman," her duet with recent tour-mate and friend Lana Del Rey has already racked up 3.4 million YouTube views, and is dripping with empowerment and female solidarity. It's lyrically pure sass—"Taking the charge/I took the lead...I'm a woman of my word/Now haven't you heard?/My word's the only thing I've ever needed"—while vocally they intertwine in playful call and response, and mesh in subtle harmonies.
"Stay" is a glorious version of a Rihanna song, and is a reminder of Marshall's incredible gift for reimagining and interpretation—she's made two whole albums of covers, after all. This takes the directness of the original and hacks apart the structure, toys with the time signature, and adds a layer of softness and naivety that make perfect sense. "Nothing Really Matters" is about feeling judged for living your life in a way that others don't agree with—but it's far from hopeless. When she asks, "How can other people's ways/Be an estimate of your way of life?/Can't the words and birds and trees and earth/Be the same thing and be just as right?," she's sad for those who can't adjust their expectations, who can't think differently. But she feels no need to bend to them. Instead, she watches from a distance: "It's like nothing really matters to them."
It's fitting that the final track should have a title as unequivocal as "Wanderer/Exit." This is a record with gentleness and vulnerability in abundance, but it's carefully crafted—it knows itself, and it knows when it's finished. Underneath the video for "Wanderer," the top comment reads simply "The Queen Returns..." Famously, when it comes to her die-hard fans, she can do no wrong. And this album is very, very right.
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