Cat Power: You Are Free

Liz Phair was a grifter. Using sexuality as a weapon, she turned the tables on obsessive boys and set their hearts aflutter with brazen lyrics like her dead-to-the-world, faux-hooker praise for doin’ it doggie-style: “That way we can fuck and watch TV.” Forgiving “Explain it to Me,” Phair was in many ways a coy tease, partying and watching porn with guys she’d never date, however they lusted after her. Chan Marshall was never so much fun, never crude or masculine; she’s the opposite fantasy, the porcelain art-school doll whose confusion you never understood. She’s the girl that never called you back, that made you lose your cool and leave two messages. Every time you see her on the street, or a friend tells you, “Yeah, I saw her at Kokie’s, she’s dating the guy from so-and-so,” it ruins your weekend.

If you love somebody, set them free.

A cagey songbird, Chan has a famously fragile ego and skittish countenance. She’s wrestled with the consequences of baring her relentlessly observant soul, and bagged on any number of shows when heckled, or simply not feeling it. What fame she currently enjoys is due in large part to the fallout from those freak-outs, her assigned reputation of being “crazy,” and it’s absolute bullshit. The Problem With Music has nothing to do with the influence of corporations or digital piracy: it’s the delirious desire to be spat upon or condescended to by seemingly unflappable, fuck-everything rebels, projecting a confidence their sycophantic fans wish they could muster. Kids want to see their dreams onstage — which used to be harmless — but cool, cold fantasies about credibility, cash and chaos in the digital age have given rise to an increasingly cocksure collection of garage-rock dopes with store-bought sticky-up hair. It’s a solid indication that pose is still prose to the uneducated, and that nothing has really changed in fifty years.

Unlike most celebrities (Fall 2001 fashion spread in New York Magazine: check), Chan Marshall is unrecognizable from one photo to the next. One moment she’s a giddy fourteen year-old girl, the next she’s Juliette Binoche. Recently, she’s Nico. Whether anxiety, insecurity, substance abuse or all three are to blame, few artists have gone through as much physical change without plastic surgery. In person, Marshall’s face undulates with each syllable, conveying a vast range of emotions in a single inflection. When she’s singing, however, it’s an entirely different story. Ms. Power is a siren on stage, a seer; a shepherdess gently coaxing words across infinities of memory, herding them home, to her soul, before tenderly ushering them on, or releasing whatever betrayal they carry in tow. She’s a representative for all manner of loss and regret, and serves us in good stead on You Are Free, her first album in five years.

1998’s Moon Pix set the stage for a promising follow-up, but Chan missed the side of that barn. The Covers Record was a dashed off, carefree run through the classics, an overt placeholder for creativity she was unable to channel, opting instead to pick through the bones of old mix-tapes to get a record out. In hindsight, it’s a good thing she didn’t document any new material after the mostly disastrous Moon Pix tour: there’s an obvious irony to The Covers Record insofar as Chan hid under them for a few years there.

Those days — the sad days; the manic, childish days — seem very long gone, as Cat Power reclaims her history, potential and allure in this overlong collection of impressionist balladry, hampered only by a few awkwardly totemic — though entirely expected — nods to Joni Mitchell. “I Don’t Blame You” is one of them, a third-person apology to self — the sort of thing addicts and those new to therapy compose on admission — that’s more obviously an obituary for Kurt Cobain. In either case, she uses the opening slot as a disconnected salvo, a statement of intent. She slips into its nudity once more on the brutal “Names” — a public service message against child abuse — You Are Free is stylistically unrestrained as Moon Pix, and twice as accomplished.

“He War” enjoyed most of the advance praise for this album, posted in digital preview form on the Matador website. This shrieking, pounding (thanks to Dave Grohl) centerpiece is second only to PJ Harvey’s “Big Exit” in the canon of Heart tributes, bringing together the stilted tempo accents and clean electric guitars that fueled so much of indie rock once Guided By Voices came on the scene. Beyond nominally decrying the Quixotic male drive that fuels her oeuvre, “He War” underscores how remarkable Marshall’s voice is, turning an otherwise pedestrian, technically amateur tune into an assured rock anthem draped in arresting, shrill wails. The bemused, detached innocence and referential genius of the video for “Cross Bones Style” broke Cat Power to a wider audience, but the song slipped out of time constantly. “He War” asks less of the listener, but to build any exposure, the video will have to distract from the song’s unpolished charm. While amateurism is cherished by analog indie rockers, it’s anathema to the airwaves. Failing a glossy short, look for a new round of GAP ads.

“Free” is a moment of daring, incorporating a deadened drum machine snare with it-gets-so-urgent strumming. Marshall scribbles a Crayola daydream of the phony-tough cock rock that ruled the radios of her youth, as more attuned, sensitive kids felt their way in the dark. It’s the only song on You Are Free to risk disaster, openly toying with Casio keys and a guitar line pinched from the Talking Heads’ tongue-in-cheek “Wild Wild Life.”

The Cat Power we’ve come to know, love, and predict finally delivers her glistening treble rasp on “Good Woman,” a devastating ballad backed by a compressed chorus of pre-teen echoes, and the record’s major selling point, Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis.

Contrary to rumors, Eddie Vedder’s presence on You Are Free is both appropriate and gentle, given his unmistakable coo. You’ll recognize it — and for anyone still mired in divisive indie squabbling, his chunky moan could ruin the record — but the three duets with Vedder are the strongest of a surfeit of funereally morose dirges that bind You Are Free.

And just like that, it’s 1995. The playful back-beat chorus and toy piano of “Speak For Me” transport anyone who lived through Pavement’s ascent to the breathless expectancy in advance of Wowee Zowee (something Cat Power also felt: she’s covered “We Dance” since it came out). It’s followed by another throwback, this time to Chan’s low-fidelity roots: a cover of Michael Hurley’s two-chord country blues number “Werewolf,” tactfully abbreviated from rambling, epic runs you may have heard in concert. Though it’s helped by David Campbell’s string arrangements, it could lay in next to anything from Myra Lee.

“Fool” makes a perfect counterpoint to “Werewolf,” in terms of Chan’s maturation where songwriting, production and subject matter are concerned. Her disdain is getting personal, her subject matter less ephemeral, as she scolds rich Americans driven by wanderlust and entitlement. With haunting harmonies and a teasing pause, the chorus tugs the heartstrings of twenty-something confusion.

Yet, for the stunning variety and intrigue of its first eight songs, the second half of You Are Free is decidedly spotty. As the old adage goes, “Ten songs is an album,” and in this case fourteen is four too many. The overwrought, repetitive “Half of You” is a less meaningful country pastiche than the searing deserter’s songs heard earlier on the record, and “Maybe Not,” though great on its own, is basically an alternate piano version of “Fool.” The two real missteps here are “Baby Doll” — a too-simple nylon plod — and a fantastic but hiss-coated cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Black Spider” mislabeled “Keep On Runnin’.” Outstanding on its own, “Spider” breaks with You Are Free’s sonic bounds, a disheveled collapse forestalling the composed, icy chill of its stupendous finale, “Evolution.”

The glacial insistence of “Evolution” — Cat Power’s proper duet with Eddie Vedder — is as out of place the album’s opener, a perfect bookend and resolution to a record that almost effortlessly shifts between hugely incongruous styles. Vedder appears in hushed baritone, meshing with the piano line and allowing Chan’s tongue-tied, sedated lilt to ride on top. “Evolution” is as poetic a retelling of moral apocalypse as you’re likely to come by, insofar as it ignores melodramatic conviction and the temporal impulse to wax politic. This is pure Hemingway.

You Are Free is full of arresting, serene beauty, but as an album — as that quantifiable object — it has composite failings. Sans a handful of lesser inclusions and tributes, the imaginary, shorter version of You Are Free is flawless. An unknown singer would take the apologist underground by storm with a record like this, but fame brings expectation and accountability, and critics will find excuses to be disappointed, for the wrong reasons. You Are Free is not a perfect record, but it contains one, detailing the sound of American regret in a singular voice, scrutinized only because of its owner.

This essay was gifted to Pitchforkmedia.com on 18 Feb. 2003. It has been reclaimed by the author as a result of the site’s 2015 sale to Condé Nast.

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