Spanning nine studio releases, Chan Marshall’s career as Cat Power has been a prolific one. With music built on foundations of personal catharsis, her back catalogue proves to be as equally diverse – traversing indie rock, alt-folk, soul and electronica. After the birth of her son in 2014, Marshall was forced to ponder the prospect of quitting music in favour of a more stable lifestyle. Instead, on her self-produced 10th outing Wanderer, she revels in a newfound confidence, submitting herself to her nomadic roots and coming into her own as an oracle-like orator with much to impart.
Rarely adding more than a guitar or piano to her vocals, Wanderer has an inescapable intimacy set amongst a folk-country soundscape brimming with beauty. In embracing and laying bare the scars of her past, there’s a poise that’s been missing from prior records. Whilst a characteristic ambivalence inhibits deeper connections on some songs, the majority have the power to ingrain and arrest after several listens.
The ethereal “Wanderer (Intro)” provides a stirring opening. Foreshadowing the folk sounds to come, its a cappella nature allows the listener to succumb to the storyteller. “In Your Face” then adds an element of swagger via piano melodies that dance with a warm electric guitar. As Marshall bemoans self-indulgence and ignorance, the chord progression unnervingly sinks deeper into the listener’s ears until the closing line jars you into self-reflection; “You forbade yourself to think, see where you are as you begin to sink, in your mirror, in your face”.
The tempo lifts a touch with the sparse drumbeat of “You Get”. The songstress’ smooth croons impart karmic wisdoms “you will take and you will get what you get,” before the lyrics become more puzzling. Following their repetitious and persistent cadence down the rabbit hole, accompanied by hypnotic lead guitar, makes it feel like navigating a dizzying hedge maze – a surreal experience.
Triumph was always hidden deep in dissonance on prior Cat Power releases, but it’s front and centre on “Woman”. Composed separately from the rest of the album, partly in response to Matador’s controversial rejection of Wanderer, it feels distinctly poppy, but not displaced. This is thanks, in part to a Lana Del Ray feature, but more importantly to the uplifting message of overcoming self-doubt in the face of adversity; “I’m a woman of my word, haven’t you heard, my word is the only thing I need”.
Contemplative piano and a tale of familial separation make “Horizon” the most poignant track on the album. While some listeners may find the electric licks and vocal modulations pulled from 2012’s Sun to be an unexpected delight, the lyrics and repetitive arrangement may be off-putting for others.
Marshall’s penchant for covers means finding one here shouldn’t come as a surprise. Rather, how she manages to find the light amid the melancholy on Rhianna and Mikky Ekko’s “Stay” certainly is. The piano is played with pace and twinkles on brighter sections, whilst deeper, slower notes combine with strings on drearier parts. This is before “Black” and “Robbin Hood” see the raconteur crafting folk tales over country-blues progressions. The former’s morally metaphorical lyrics tell of an “angel of death” and how she “was someone who believed in sin”. The latter’s jangly chains and a pounding kick underscore clever wordplay bemoaning elitist manipulators; “come into your head, they want the soul of your mind… who robbin’ who”.
The fatalistic piano on “Nothing Really Matters” imbues a deep sorrow associated with the importance contemporary society places on shallow values. It’s here, however, that the repetitious structure becomes rather tired. It thus struggles to affect as prominently as tracks before it. Thankfully the follow up “Me Voy” (“I’m Going” in Spanish) is suitably stronger, feeling like the thematic apex of the record. The Spanish strum and meandering keys coordinate well with the depressive assertiveness of her vocals. It’s here that you can feel her history of lost relationships, drug abuse and death of loved ones underpinning her motives for her nomadic lifestyle. The beauty of the sparse arrangement feels complimentarily climactic before “Wanderer (Exit)” presents a counterpoint to the opening track. Serving as a forlorn, less celebratory reinterpretation, trumpets are used to give a finality to the scene. As if weary from her scars, she exits, not defeated, but exhausted from her outpouring.
Chan Marshall’s 10th outing as Cat Power sees her step in yet another direction untrodden. She straddles a folky soundscape that harnesses the storytelling nature of blues roots and the angelic, ethereal heights of classical folk. The more you listen, the harder it becomes to avoid picturing her singing these songs whilst swinging on a rickety chair of a Route 66 gas station in the middle of nowhere, her son running around her leg as she teaches passers-by of her life’s failings and triumphs. If you can surrender yourself to Marshall’s powers, there’s much to get lost in.
Wanderer is released Friday 5th October via Domino Recording Company.