Cat Power Delivers a Mellow and Meandering Meditation With ‘Wanderer’

Chan Marshall, commonly known as Cat Power, has been at it since the early nineties, persisting through all the fleeting crazes that have teased us along the way. She’s taken on different forms over the years, but has always kept a distinct personality that makes her music one of a kind. With elements of folk, soul, punk attitude, and pop polish, she doesn’t fall neatly into any genre that would do her justice, but simply makes songs with her signature stamp, and evolves with the times. “Wanderer,” her tenth album, and her first in six years, was originally rejected by Matador Records for not being commercial enough. Marshall, in turn, did the only reasonable thing she left the label. The original collection of songs has finally come to see the light of day, along with an extra track featuring Lana Del Rey. The record is an elegant set of tunes with plenty of spark and flair.

The titular track is a brief prelude, setting the stage for the album, opening things up into a dreamy, lush atmosphere, with Marshall immediately making an impact with her breathy, husky voice. It’s structured in the form of an old folk song that’s made its way through the ages, and ended up a vestige of earlier times and their associated mentaities. Marshall sings of the eponymous “wanderer,” musing through thoughts like, “Twist of fate would have me sing at your wedding / With a baby on my mind and your soul in between.” It’s a sidelong glance at a romantic intrigue in an understated, winsome tone. “In Your Face” evokes ‘60s girl groups and old nightclubs with scarlet curtains. It begins with the striking line, “You never need, you’re American.” What follows is what seems like a jab at Western complacency, and lazy rationalizations for turning a blind eye to important issues. The lyrics are rather cryptic, however, and that’s their main charm, as Marshall is quite the poet.

“You Get” begins with a guitar riff that recalls Nirvana, but in a moment, ventures into the same sonic space as the last track. There’s a decidedly ‘60s aesthetic, but with Marshall singing in her natural voice and accent, rather than making a full period piece of it. Lyrics like “You never listen… you get what you get,” voice a sort of nihilistic weariness. In a chorus layered with vocal harmonies, Marshall sings the word “time” with a tongue-in-cheek intonation that casts the lyrics in a mold that strikes as both playful and disaffected. “Woman” is a collaboration with Lana Del Rey, a languid, airy shuffle, with the the two singing together on a chorus that repeats the titular word. Within the harmonies, there is a fully fleshed-out melody, and a whispered hint of another, giving the sense of voices bound together loosely, just in concert enough to keep things flowing smoothly. The lyrics are again open-ended, but can be safely assumed to express a message of female empowerment, in an understated way. The mere repetition of the word “woman” by Marshall and Del Rey together is enough to get the idea across.

“Horizon” is a song that finds Marshall swaying with composure, with her hushed singing sounding especially, rich and sonorous, and creating a strikingly dreamy vibe. There are backing vocals in the chorus that make a rather ingenious use of Auto-tune, with the morphing utterances seeming like voicings of tangential thoughts over the barebones backdrop. “Stay” is a Rihanna cover that takes a polished and punchy song, and renders it in a more contemplative, deconstructed and diffused form. While the lyrics are the same, the mood that Marshall’s rendition evokes couldn’t be further from that of the original. “Black” showcases Marshall’s distinctive sonic personality, possibly more effectively than any other track here. Her singing is very whimsical in the way that it shuttles between conversational meter and proper singing, veering off into flirty inflections, and always delivered with a breezy freeness.

‘60s pop sounds are a steady theme on this record, and “Robin Hood” is an especially pronounced example, with a tambourine backbone that gives it a nostalgic character. “Nothing Really Matters” finds Marshall over vintage processed piano, meandering with a freeness and fluidity that makes the track particularly potent. “Me Voy” expresses conflicting emotions, with a refrain of “I am leaving,” as well as lines like “Don’t go anywhere.” It brings us back to the central theme of being a “wanderer.” Finally, “Wanderer / Exit” brings things full circle. The tune is of an age-old blues, the same basic melody as Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” popularized through Nirvana’s cover version. It closes things in a reflective mood, much like the opener, framing the entire album as a collection of musings.    

Overall, “Wanderer” is a remarkably cohesive set of songs that fit together and give off a very distinct mood. The music is breezy, romantic, quirky, and unassuming. There’s nothing too avant-garde here, and all the songs are relatively catchy and conventional, so the fact that the album was originally rejected bares testament to the stifling narrow-mindedness that often comes with major labels. It’s admirable that Marshall rebelled, and put the record out after all, rather than compromise her artistic integrity. The album is stipped-down and uncluttered, but still full of lush soundscapes, capturing a unique voice, and recasting it with fresh ideas.

Wanderer” is available Oct. 5 on Apple Music.