Back af­ter six years away, as a new par­ent, Chan Mar­shall is on the move and trav­el­ling light. But Vic­to­ria Se­gal sees storm clouds up ahead. Il­lus­tra­tion by Dark­house Quar­ter.

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Cat Power ★★★★ Wan­derer DOMINO. CD/DL/LP

THE GOLD box­ing gloves on the cover of Cat Power’s 2006 al­bum The Great­est have become an un­likely totem for Chan Mar­shall’s ca­reer: her abil­ity, no mat­ter what, to come back fight­ing. The six years since the re­lease of her last al­bum Sun, much like the six years be­fore it, have not been easy for her, time scarred by bank­ruptcy and break-ups, ill health and hospi­tal ad­mis­sions, the pres­sure to land an­other “hit” af­ter The Great­est’s com­mer­cial punch. It is tempt­ing, then, to see the self-pro­duced Wan­derer – ef­fec­tively a come­back al­bum on a new la­bel – as a glo­ri­ous re­turn, a grand re­demp­tive state­ment, all crowned with a guest ap­pear­ance from Lana Del Rey. Mar­shall, an­nounc­ing the al­bum’s ex­is­tence on In­sta­gram last July, cer­tainly ap­peared ju­bi­lant: “Back in the game,” she wrote in a scat­ter of emoji hearts and rain­bows that might have sur­prised her mid-’90s lo-fi self. Yet it is an­other In­sta­gram post that hints at the sub­tle and shift­ing mood of Wan­derer. In April 2015, Mar­shall wrote about her hor­ror and sad­ness at the protests in Bal­ti­more sparked by the death of Fred­die Gray, events she was late to find out about because, she men­tioned, she had been in hospi­tal hav­ing a baby. As birth an­nounce­ments go, it was oddly apoc­a­lyp­tic: par­ents nat­u­rally worry about the world they are bring­ing their chil­dren into, but here, there was no divi­sion between this mo­ment of pure vul­ner­a­bil­ity and the tur­bu­lent streets out­side. Mar­shall has of­ten seemed to in­habit such an un­usu­ally por­ous world: 1998’s eerily clair­voy­ant Moon Pix was fa­mously writ­ten dur­ing a long dark night in an iso­lated South Carolina farm­house, Mar­shall play­ing songs to ward off the thou­sands of dark spir­its she felt mass­ing out­side the win­dows. Her live shows, mean­while, be­came no­to­ri­ous in the late-’90s for her ten­dency to aban­don songs un­fin­ished be­fore dis­solv­ing into tears and self-re­crim­i­na­tion, her thin pro­fes­sional skin washed away by in­tense, un­curbed emo­tion. Wan­derer is, sound-wise at least, not a record that breaks its banks: it is poised, spec­tral, rangy, stripped down from the elec­tronic ex­per­i­men­ta­tion of Sun or the Mem­phis soul of The Great­est with­out feel­ing hol­lowed out. Yet for all its creative clar­ity – a joy cap­tured by the pow­er­ful cover im­age of Mar­shall, her son and her gui­tar – these are still songs open to the hos­til­i­ties of the out­side world, songs that are forced to criss-cross dan­ger­ous ter­ri­tory, both per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal. It be­gins with the ti­tle track, a sun-through-clouds a cap­pella spir­i­tual that Mar­shall might be singing from a moun­tain top at dawn, a choir of ethe­real voices curl­ing around like mist. Yet by the time it is reprised as fi­nal song Wan­derer/Exit, its seren­ity has been sand-blasted away, scuffed into a weary gui­tar strum and rue­ful trum­pet, all those com­fort­ing voices rubbed out. If Wan­derer has an arc, it’s a down­ward curve, pride and grace giv­ing way to sheer de­fi­ance, because that’s all there is. There are times when Mar­shall makes Wan­derer an ex­plicit state-of-the-na­tion ad­dress, ex­chang­ing un­world­li­ness for a watch­ful sim­mer. The del­i­cate pi­ano lines and per­cus­sive weave of In Your Face softly trace out a dis­turb­ing pic­ture of un­think­ing power – “You never need/You’re Amer­i­can/You never take what you say se­ri­ously” – while the raw­boned, shiv­ery folk yo­del of Rob­bin Hood eyes up the in­jus­tices on every city street, cal­cu­lates the threat lev­els of being the wrong per­son in the wrong place at the wrong time. The strut­ting Woman, fea­tur­ing back­ing vo­cals from for­mer tour­ing part­ner Lana Del Rey, mean­while, is Mar­shall’s I Will Sur­vive: “The doc­tor said I was bet­ter than ever/Man you shoulda seen me,” she sings, as the mu­sic re­spect­fully gives her space to tes­tify. “The doc­tor said I was not my past/He said I was fi­nally free.” Yet Mar­shall also sug­gests through these songs that it’s not that easy. The con­stant move­ment sug­gested by the ti­tle comes to seem less like a free­dom or for­ward mo­tion, and more a chain, a bur­den. Grad­u­ally, Wan­derer slows down, fa­tigue creep­ing into its bones, the songs grind­ing to an ex­hausted halt. On the gen­tle fam­ily hymn Hori­zon, ac­com­pa­nied by Jim White on drums and The Blues Ex­plo­sion’s Ju­dah Bauer on gui­tar – Mar­shall sings to her mother, fa­ther, sib­lings, yet can never quite be close enough to keep them in fo­cus: “I’m headed the other way.” Her cover of Ri­hanna’s Stay seems to lift out of a cloud of to­bacco smoke and de­spair, the re­frain of “round and around and around we go”, tes­ta­ment to two peo­ple locked in a down­ward spiral. There are other pit­falls, other dan­gers too: the sa­loon cabaret of Black in­vokes “la Grande Faucheuse” or “angel of death”, turn­ing ad­dic­tion and over­dose into a ter­ri­fy­ing folk tale: “When the white light went away I knew Death was set­ting in.” For Mar­shall, wan­der­ing isn’t just about the fresh air and un­touched pioneer spa­ces: it’s a walk on the dark side, too. There’s no dan­ger of Wan­derer out­stay­ing its wel­come, but while it’s a bril­liant re­turn, it wouldn’t be quite right to claim it as a tri­umph. Not because of the qual­ity of these songs, but because Wan­derer is a record that knows the cost of liv­ing and the price of los­ing all too well. “I am leav­ing,” sings Mar­shall on the penul­ti­mate farewell of Me Voy, “good as gone.” Un­til next time, then, these are the tracks to fol­low. Round and around and around we go.

“These are songs open to the hos­til­i­ties of the out­side world, both per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal.”

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