Release Date: Oct 5, 2018
Record label: Domino
Chan Marshall, who records under the alias Cat Power, boasts more musical prowess than many singer-songwriters would even know what to do with. In fact, after nine gleaming LPs, she almost stopped doing anything with it--she told The New York Times that after getting pregnant in 2014, she thought about abandoning her music career to move to Australia and change her name to Beth. Instead of fulfilling those outback fantasies, Marshall went back to work.
Cat Power - the performing name of Atlanta, Georgia singer-songwriter Chan Marshall – has been releasing music for nearly 25 years now. Ever since her 1994 debut Dear Sir, she's been distilling classic genres of modern American music - soul, blues and folk - into her own unique blend of modern torch songs, underpinned by a sharp sense of melody and lyrics that combine the personal with the universal. Over her first half-dozen records, the rougher, lo-fi edges of Marshall’s sound were gradually polished, culminating in 2006's lush, expansive The Greatest, Cat Power's most accessible release yet.
Much like her friend, and influence, Nick Cave , Chan's music as Cat Power vacillates wildly between sombre, blue and broken-hearted right to the other end of the spectrum, sounding like sheer existential ennui committed to tape. On Wanderer, we get a lot of the former, and a flavour - mostly through the lyrics - of the latter. Produced by Marshall and mixed by Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Beck and others), the album includes a notable appearance by Lana Del Rey .
“I’m a woman of my word / Or haven’t you heard?” sings Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) on ‘Woman’. “My word’s the only thing I’ve ever needed.” Six years on from ‘Sun’, she sounds defiant, reflecting the mood in her home of America. The song could serve as an internal soundtrack for women living in resistance there and further afield, Lana Del Rey’s presence on it acting as a reminder that, while Chan sings of herself as a singular woman, she is not alone.
On her bluesy 10th album as Cat Power, Chan Marshall honours herself and her own creativity 'Nothing but Time', the shimmering centrepiece of Cat Power's last album, 'Sun', is an 11-minute, Iggy Pop-featuring opus about doubt and depression ("It’s nothing but time / And it ain’t got nothing on you"). This was the sound of someone convincing themselves to give life another go - by contrast, the centrepiece to new album 'Wanderer', the joyous Lana Del Rey collaboration 'Woman', concludes with the duo chanting the track's title over and over. A celebration of identity, femininity and knowing precisely who you are (and feeling brilliant about it), the track is equally jubilant and self-assured.
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.
Chan Marshall's career is solitary and self-sustaining like few others. Her catalog is a mountain range, each peak indifferent to what preceded it and unconcerned with what follows it. With barely more than her voice and a guitar, she has built a rich and variable universe spanning an array of moods--unnerving, consoling, paranoiac, sensual--and her albums situate themselves along those moods like stations of the cross.
The Lowdown: In the 20 years since Cat Power's breakthrough fourth album, Moon Pix, Chan Marshall has lived many lives. The singer-songwriter seems to release an album every six years that marks major departures and transformations in her personal life. With 2012's Sun, Marshall broke with cycles of substance abuse and stage fright, and she heralded the new era with synths, off-kilter dance beats, and even Auto-Tune.
Wanderer is the soundtrack to a montage of Chan Marshall, better known as Cat Power, migrating across dusty plains of memory. Walking through whistling eddies of windblown pain and regret, traveling light on lesser known routes in the twilight, she traces and retraces the ridgelines of her life over eleven tracks. As an album it's both a confession and a declaration of independence, a recognition of inner determination and strength that acknowledges a troubled past: a record of hope and fear in the most literal sense.
Chan Marshall has always given a lot of herself to her audience. Throughout her career as Cat Power, Marshall has always shared her emotions, no matter how raw, no matter how vulnerable. Wanderer, the first Cat Power album in six years, is a reminder of just how much she is willing to lay bare. Stripped down to primarily piano and guitar arrangements, Marshall recalls a simplicity in her arrangements that she hasn't revisited in the past 15 years and then doubles down on the minimalism.
Every so often, Chan Marshall comes back from her roving ways to honor her longtime devotion to music. Marshall, whose used the name Cat Power for over two decades, is not the kind of artist who is motivated by either necessity or opportunity. Lately, her albums are few and far between, and when they do come out, they always hold a familiar ring to them.
O h, to have been a fly on the wall when someone from Matador - Cat Power's former label - reportedly played this veteran, otherworldly talent an Adele album, to demonstrate what hits sounded like. Chan Marshall was in the process of delivering her 10th full-length outing but, despite a working relationship of over 20 years, the august indie stable did not take to Wanderer - a spectral work of piano, guitar and multitracked voice that slips out of your fingers the more you try to pin it down. This, you might argue, is the pleasure of many of Cat Power's records.
"In the press there's always been an exploitation of my vulnerability that has demeaned my professionalism, has demeaned my stature," said Chan Marshall - aka Cat Power - in a recent radio interview with Mary Anne Hobbs. Indeed, in the run-up to the release of her tenth studio album, Wanderer, the vast majority of media coverage seems to have followed the same narrative: Marshall struggles with depression and addiction issues, gives notoriously "erratic" live performances, bucks her ideas up, goes to rehab, has a baby, and - despite a blip whereby she becomes a single parent - is ultimately saved by her motherhood and sobriety and writes an album. Of course, an artist's personal life is always going to be part and parcel of their music - and I'm not denying that struggle and recovery and parenthood would have a significant impact on anyone's artistic output - but Cat Power has been subject to a particular brand of romanticisation her whole career, epitomised by the 2003 LA Weekly piece in which John Payne crowned her "the queen of sadcore".
Chan Marshall has always been a wandering spirit. With her releases moving from sparse solo enquiries through to fleshed out Southern soul engagements, she's difficult to predict but impossible to shrug off. 'Wanderer' ventures to pastures old and new, with Chan said to be "going from town to town, with my guitar, telling my tale". Opening with the gorgeous title track - a rural hymnal, a divine choral piece - 'In Your Face' tinkles with twilight piano notes, a kind of feminine counterpart to Tom Waits' tragic caricatures.