Music Reviews

Cat Power Wanderer

(Domino) Rating - 6/10

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. But Marshall's journey hasn't been one of wily mysticism as of late. She's simply been occupied with the demands of domesticity, caring for a toddler as a single mother while making the occasional songwriting and guest appearances. Wanderer is less so a document of her six-year absence, more so a narrative of what it took for her to gather the strength to complete a self-sufficient record.

During this album cycle, it's been widely documented how Marshall broke ties with longtime label Matador records after they failed to recognize Wanderer's limited commercial prospects. Which seems like something of a moot point, given that Marshall has more than enough visibility to easily surpass her first top ten showing with 2012's Sun. Artists with a longstanding career like Marshall's bloom after they've artistically so-called "peaked," and tend to surpass critical commercial metrics from a sizable adult contemporary audience (case in point: The National). So it should come as little to no surprise that Wanderer is Marshall's most commercial-sounding record to date, one which explores the singer-songwriter domain with a stripped-down, classic touch rather than as a pursuit for writing pop songs.

Marshall introduces Wanderer with a gentle gospel on the title track, where her love of storytelling takes precedence over her fictional accounts. It's a quiet introduction which adequately calibrates the album's unvarnished approach, though in no way does she shy away from tackling difficult subjects. On Woman, she directly makes mention about her struggles with an autoimmune disorder that left her in a debilitated state. It's also a gracious anthem in celebration of womanhood as a daily, corporeal joy, utilizing a simple mantra with a plainspoken intimacy: "My word's the only thing I truly need/woman/woman/woman/ woman." Though uncompromisingly forthright, Woman loses some of that power due to its shiftless acoustic melody. It's a determined sentiment which, sadly, also has the potential of grating the ears after a couple of plays at your local coffee shop.

The entirety of Marshall relies on Marshall's lyrical content, which brings to the fore a problematic conflict - while her devotees will relish and hold on to every single word she says, the newer, or even casual listener may feel alienated by Wanderer's muted sequencing. The spare arrangement of In Your Face is exquisite, a jazzy, piano-based song with a seductive incantation where her poetic dalliances dance around an ominous message. Other times, her confidence draws your attention - on Black, she cheekily establishes a half-spoken account that, while absorbing from beginning to end, could've done without such a skeletal arrangement. She's explored this form of songwriting time and time again, which is why it's a bit disheartening that she couldn't come up with a more involving way to present her otherwise sharp observations.

But as expected, Marshall always manages to somehow sound unlike anyone else, even when she's sticking to a tried-and-true format. Nothing Really Matters recalls the melancholy grandeur of The Greatest but distilled in its purest form, a piano-led meditation on self-forgiveness that is high in both emotion and uncertainty. It's also a pitch-perfect example of how Marshall can say so much with so little, a task she commits to from start to finish. Perhaps the use of auto-tune in Horizon can come off as distracting at first, but within the song's leisured, radiating glow, it somehow sticks - her contorted inflection becomes an instrument in itself.

Marshall charts her own path in Wanderer, fully in command of her artistic vision as she courses through an unimpeded trail. This freedom comes at a cost, though, resulting in some undeveloped material that could've used an extra revision or two. Some of Wanderer is, frankly, quite dull, even if her irresolute darkness can still engulf your senses upon closer inspection. Marshall keeps us at a certain distance as if gazing into an incomplete photo book, leaving too many empty spaces to fill when there are so many other stories to tell.