Cat Power: Wanderer, in-depth review – staying true to her own weird way

After her record label rejected her album, singer-songwriter Chan Marshall found a new home for her singular sound

Oh, 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. Matador, long held to be a bastion of artist-friendliness, neither confirmed nor denied the episode detailed in Marshall’s New York Times interview, but stressed their respect for Cat Power as an artist.

In an era of pop careerism, we have to remind ourselves that some artists don’t have much choice in the matter. The material world is often incidental to them; they are grappling for things we can’t fathom, dodging things we can’t see. “No, I’m not like those other ones,” sighs Marshall.

She has, at different times in her life, been hospitalised for bipolar disorder (a diagnosis since rescinded), gone to rehab (depressed, not an alcoholic, she maintains in a recent interview) and, more recently, been laid low by an autoimmune condition that made her singing parts swell up (now managed). Marshall used to have what you might call visions. She wrote an album in one night, when she was terrified of what lay outside the house she then shared with Bill Callahan – Moon Pix, 20 years old this year. I remember interviewing her for NME’s new bands section; she talked about her recent trip to South Africa, and, vividly, about demons. Early on, Marshall acquired a reputation as an erratic performer that has, perhaps, been overstated, but I recall a London performance very early on in which she curled up in a foetal position in the DJ booth before going on stage.

Released on a new label, Wanderer is, then, a rather different proposition to Marshall’s previous LP, 2012’s Sun, a top 10 album in the US in which warmth, electronics, beats and greater accessibility seemed to draw a line under the old, weird Cat Power.

It’s perfectly proper to read Wanderer as a description of Marshall. Shunted from pillar to post as a child in the south, in adulthood, the life of an itinerant musician made perfect sense: wandering. But the title track – a folk song – seems to address a lover as “wanderer”. It probably takes one to know one.

The cover of Wanderer features Marshall’s arm, a guitar neck and her toddler son: all the important things. Squint your ears, and the album comes full circle back through The Greatest and You Are Free to some of Marshall’s earliest work, drawing on folk, blues and rule-shrugging DIY methods – but like Sun, Wanderer was self-written and self-produced, the initial recording sessions taking place in her Miami Beach base.

Marshall now has a manager, but Wanderer has that spooked strangeness of old. The grim reaper looms large – in his more feminine French guise, “la grande faucheuse” – on a riveting song called Black. On it, Marshall details an incident where a friend, now dead, revived her with “an ice bath and a slap”. “Closest to death I’ve ever been,” she mutters.

But there are tunes, too – pretty things like Horizon, which pays tribute to her family, while Marshall simultaneously eyes the exit; Jim White is the drummer here (he played on Moon Pix); Judah Bauer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, fellow travellers from Cat Power’s New York days, is on guitar.

Trap beats might be in short supply, but Wanderer does have a toehold or two in the mainstream. It comes with guest harmonies by Lana Del Rey, whom Marshall first met by the pool of the infamous Los Angeles hotel Chateau Marmont (from which Marshall was once banned for playing the piano naked); Del Rey thanked Cat Power in the liner notes of her Lust for Life album and took Marshall on tour in Europe last spring.

Their collaboration is called Woman, a last-minute, Neil Young-ish country lope that came on to the tracklist after Marshall moved on from Matador. At the time of writing, it’s had 2.8m-plus YouTube views; none too shabby. You can hear something of the label-change circumstances in the song’s opening lyrics: “If I had a dime for every time / You tell me I’m not what you need,” she sings, as though to a lover, on the album version: “If I had a quarter I would put it together / And I would take it to the bank and then leave.”

Watch the video for Woman by Cat Power ft Lana Del Rey.

Mid-album, there is a Rihanna cover, Stay: not the whole song, just the bits that resonated with Marshall when she heard it on the radio. Her two covers albums – The Covers Record (2000), Jukebox (2008) – helped to establish Cat Power as a subtle and effusive interpreter of other people’s songs as much as a wayward talent of her own. Ramblin’ (Wo)man, a spacious, jazzy Hank Williams cover from Jukebox, might be a relevant precursor here.

You don’t really get politics from Cat Power, but as a marker of where we are now, there is In Your Face, a song that is, obliquely, about the ugly American masculinity of the Trump era. Naturally, it has a bossanova beat, while Me Voy features Spanish guitar and is sung partially in Spanish too: “I am leaving / Me voy.”

As the album winds gently on, Nothing Really Matters aches at the disconnect between what matters to Marshall and what matters to everyone else. A sparse guitar’n’tambourine sketch, Robbin Hood contrasts urban fear with the grand larcenies committed by the rich; it sounds like it could have been written during the Great Depression, somewhere in the dust bowl. If anything, songs like these all cleave to the time-honoured troubadour vocation.

She is a restless soul, but, emphatically, not a casualty. “Doctor says I was not my past,” sings Marshall, on Woman. “He said I was finally free.”


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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