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.”