Six years passed since the last Cat Power record, and Wanderer certainly doesn’t feel like a follow-up to 2012’s Sun, a work that departs from much of the blues-meets-coffeehouse singer/songwriter stylings that permeate much of Cat Power’s catalog. For Sun, the artist, whose real name is Chan Marshall, embraced electronic and ambient textures—a bold move that saw her leaving her roots behind. She returns to them here, and at a time her impact can be heard in the likes of Angel Olsen and Sharon Van Etten.
Since the release of Sun, Marshall became a mother, a fact only worth mentioning since it seems to have influenced the more independently minded songwriting of Wanderer—and the split from her longtime label, Matador. The latter, she told the New York Times, rejected the quieter, more intimate Wanderer, which sees her confidently sticking to folk and blues influences. While some tunes certainly feel paired down—the latter half of the album favors Marshall’s penchant for assuredly unfinished tones—they’re far from minimalistic (Lana Del Rey guests on the standout “Woman”). Instead, they serve as a showcase for Marshall’s stark guitar playing and slightly husky, lived-in voice, a combination that has always given her music a welcome, soulful bent.
“When you finally see the light,” Chan Marshall sings halfway throughWanderer, “it’s hard to know which one of us is caving.” The line hints at a craving for intimacy, but also leaves the listener with a sense of foreboding. Throughout Wanderer, Marshall presents a vision of loner, but also of a protector of herself and others. She runs from family on “Horizon” and feels aghast at the lack of community around her in “Nothing Really Matters.” These songs are grown-up tales—mini-stories without happy endings.
The adult-focused films of Jason Reitman, in particular this year’s Tully, suit the songs of Wanderer. The film, starring Charlize Theron as a woman struggling to keep her life together, largely concerns putting one’s self-reliance to the test. The soundtrack already features the works of the Velvet Underground and the Jayhawks. Marshall’s rootsy songs would feel right at home.
A slightly bitter streak courses through Wanderer, giving the album a tenor akin to that of someone comfortable in their own skin but not comfortable around others. The album’s aura evokes that of a modern Western, and it starts strong. The opening title track possesses a ghastly, country-gospel tone driven by Marshall’s hushed-but-assertive vocals, mysterious backing harmonies, and lyrics in which everyone in her world changes. Hand drums and plucked piano notes bestow “In Your Face” with an even more enigmatic feel, and “Woman,” featuring Lana Del Ray, stands as one of Marshall’s stronger singles. If Del Rey’s colorful noir initially seems a mismatch for Marshall’s black-and-white version, any doubts are immediately proven wrong. With cocky, stuttering guitar notes, a cooler-than-thou keyboard, and all the attitude of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin,’” their voices mesh into a powerful force in which the title gets repeated as a word of defiance.
Things slow after that. “Horizon” pairs a gloomy piano with lyrics of anger and disappointment. “Father, I need you to be a man,” Marshall sings, before finally giving up in the song’s final verse. “Stay” comes on as a soft piano lullaby, while the ferocious message of “Robbin Hood” molds with a slow-stepping lament. But if the music gets softer, calmer, and slightly less inventive than the opening numbers, Marshall’s songwriting remains sharp. Each verse of “Black” stands as a screenplay waiting to happen—a character study delivered with uncommon grace by the person in the back of the bar (“Let me tell you a story about Black…He had an empty gaze/In his eyes, like a bear” Marshall narrates). It becomes clear Marshall knows exactly where she’s leading us.
Marshall isn’t flashy, and Domino keeps the LP simple. The single -jacket packaging, with raised lettering, captures off-center glimpses of Marshall, child, and a guitar. Lyrics come on the back of a folded poster, with one black-and-white image of Marshall standing before a microphone with an electric guitar. While the overall production and engineering feels strong—the duties are primarily handled by Rob Schnapf, who worked behind the boards on key records by Elliott Smith and Beck– the pressing disappoints. The second side of the record, in particular, is rife crackly surface noise, especially inexcusable given that is where Marshall begs us to lean in closer.
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