Cat Power: Wanderer review – the beautiful sound of the road to nowhere

Chan Marshall’s latest album adds Auto-Tune, Lana Del Rey and a Rihanna cover version to her folk, blues and American roots music. It’s the work of a woman going her own way

Of all the clearly doomed-to-failure schemes dreamed up by the music industry over the years, the one Chan Marshall claims her former record label devised for her a few years back takes some beating. Her ninth album as Cat Power, 2012’s Sun, had cracked the US Top 10, indicative of an interest in the 46-year-old singer-songwriter stretching beyond her usual devoted cult following. Emboldened by these developments, Matador apparently decided that Marshall’s next album should represent a concerted push for full-blown commercial crossover.

You can’t blame them for trying to turn a buck, but there’s something mind-blowing about the concept of shunting Marshall towards vast fame and celebrity. Her story thus far has been peppered with stints in rehab, a stay in hospital occasioned by a psychotic breakdown, painfully frank confessional interviews and gigs that linger in the memory as perhaps the most uncomfortable experience one could have in a live music venue, short of the PA falling on one’s head. Marshall is keen to let the world know that she’s doing well and that reports of her being – as she put it – “fucking whack-o” happily belong to history. “The doctor said I was better than ever – man, you should have seen me,” she sings on Woman, the lead single from Wanderer. “The doctor said I was not my past, he said I was finally free.” Nevertheless, the notion that someone might look over her career to date and conclude that, yes, here is someone with the vaulting ambition and bulletproof confidence required to deal with mainstream success seems pretty fucking whack-o in itself.

Still, you can see why people might think a commercial breakthrough is at Marshall’s fingertips, should she so desire. It’s a point demonstrated by Wanderer, an album she took elsewhere (to Domino) after the contretemps with her previous employer. It features a guest appearance from a heavyweight star – Lana Del Rey, another Cat Power admirer, who sounds noticeably more alive on Woman than she does when inhabiting the blank-eyed persona of her own albums – and a careworn piano cover of a big pop hit, Rihanna’s 2012 single Stay. A voice worn hard by the cynicism of the music industry might suggest that it is not merely lovely, but also much the stuff of which TV ad soundtracks are made.

Cat Power: Woman (ft. Lana Del Rey) – video

The songs are great, grounded in folk, blues and other American roots music – it’s not such a stretch to imagine the a capella title track stripped of its ghostly echo and performed by a church choir back in Marshall’s native Georgia – but they never seem reverent or forced. It feels instead as if Marshall is drawing on music that comes naturally to her and shaping it to her own ends. Black is rooted in the desolate folk storytelling tradition where a physical embodiment of death stalks the Earth, ready to trap the unwary, but Marshall warps its conventions to describe a drug overdose. You could draw a line between the brief, acoustic Robbin Hood and the eerie early 20th-century Americana collected on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, but it shares space on Wanderer with Horizon, a song decorated with spidery trails of Auto-Tuned vocals.

Whether it seems like music that might have existed nearly a century ago or music that could only have been made in 2018, the sound of Wanderer is stripped back but inviting, intimate rather than austere. Marshall’s lovely malt-whiskey voice flows around the guitar and pianos, earthy, smoky and warming even when she’s singing some pretty chilling lyrics. The strutting, empowered confidence of Woman is at odds with the rest of the album’s emotional tenor. Horizon starts out sounding like a song about familial reconciliation and homecoming before nagging doubts creep in and continued estrangement seems a better option: you gradually become aware that the refrain of “I’m on my way” means the protagonist is headed in the opposite direction. There’s something very equivocal about the hard-won experience of You Get (“You will live in this world and you’ll get what you get”) and Nothing Really Matters, the latter’s repetitions of its title feeling alternately optimistic and glumly resigned. In Your Face clings on to the hope that a very Trump-like figure will one day find himself unable to face his reflection in the mirror, but something about the way she draws said figure suggests this hope is forlorn.

These are complex songs, striking but low-key: their constant references to motion and travel seem to have as much to do with Marshall’s determination to go her own way artistically – whatever expectations others have of her – as they do with the peripatetic life of a touring musician. There’s a quiet confidence and poise about Wanderer that suggests Marshall is exactly where she wants to be.

What Alexis is listening to this week

Afro B – Drogba (Joanna) (Team Salut and Toddla T UK Garage Remix)
London Afrobeat pioneer beautifully remixed: the results recall that early noughties moment when garage briefly functioned as gleaming pop.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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