Opinion | Cat Power returns with an ode to herself

Cat Power performs during a concert at the Columbia Theater, Berlin, 2015. Photo: Getty Images
Cat Power performs during a concert at the Columbia Theater, Berlin, 2015. Photo: Getty Images

The enigmatic singer-songwriter’s new album, Wanderer is stark but also intense

My introduction to the music of Charlyn Marie “Chan" Marshall, or Cat Power, the stage name by which she is known, was in 2000 when I first heard her cover of the Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. Her version of the famous song was distinctive: she stripped it down, making it a haunting song about unrequited love; and dropped the most familiar line, “I can’t get no satisfaction", altogether, never singing it even once. That version appeared in Power’s The Covers Record, along with covers of other songs including ones by The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and Nina Simone.

On The Covers Record, just a piano and a guitar accompany Power’s plaintive vocals. Nearly 20 years old, The Covers Record was launched quietly and has been sadly underrated although critics, including several musicians, have lauded it as a very powerful album. Covers was Power’s fifth studio album and by the time it came out, she had already made her mark with her dark-hued, blues-influenced songs. Moon Pix, her fourth album, whose 11 songs were written on a single night, had been hailed as a masterpiece, and her live performances had begun drawing loyal fans despite the unpredictability that always seems to surround those gigs.

A long sufferer of stage fright, at performances, Power is known to be erratic. Often petrified of those who come to listen to her, Power has sometimes played and sung with her back facing the audience; broken off in the middle of a song and left the stage; and performed an entire set continuously without breaks in between songs so that she doesn’t have to interact with her audience or give them the space to applaud. But, paradoxically, she tours continuously and now, as a single mother, her three-year-old child and his nanny often accompany her on her hectic itinerary.

Unpredictability also surrounds much of the 46-year-old Atlanta, Georgia-born (but New York based) singer-songwriter’s career. It has always been difficult to anticipate what a new album from her is going to be like. Her first couple of albums showed influences of the blues, folk and punk; then, on Moon Pix, she turned introspective, complex and soulful. Then came The Covers Record, which was followed by You Are Free, a reflective, autobiographical sketch. Power has been tormented by depression and fought a battle with drugs and alcohol abuse. Some of that influences the songs she writes and records. Her cover versions—not only on The Covers Record but also ones such as New York (famously sung by Frank Sinatra), and Aretha, Sing One For Me (by George Jackson)—are brilliant but her own compositions are like the works of a genius.

In 2006, Power released her seventh and what is probably her greatest studio album. It is also called The Greatest. All the 12 songs on it are Power’s own compositions for which she returned to the south and recorded in Memphis. It was an R&B and soul album, homage to the music she listened to while growing up. Compared to her sparse, earlier songs, The Greatest teems with energy, and multiple layers of musical arrangements, which give it an abundantly rich sound. Could We and Living Proof, from the album, epitomize Power’s tribute to Southern music.

In 2008 she released Jukebox, another “covers" album featuring, notably Power’s version of Joni Mitchell’s Blue and a tweaked version of Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man, which she has called Ramblin’ (Wo)man. Then, in 2012, came Sun, which continued her evolution as a musician: she added synths and electronic instruments and lyrics that are far more upbeat than the melancholia of her earlier work. Nothin’ But Time is an epic 11-minute song for her ex-boyfriend, actor Giovanni Ribisi’s teenage daughter; and Peace And Love is a hip hop style song that also ridicules the hippie generation’s utopian ideals.

This month, Cat Power released her 10th and latest album, Wanderer. Coming six years after Sun, it is largely self-composed but there is also a surprising cover of R&B star Rihanna’s Stay. Wanderer remains true to the idea that you never really know where a new Cat Power album will go until you actually play it. After The Greatest’s lushness, and Sun’s synth and electronica, on Wanderer, Power returns to bluesy starkness: the instruments are minimally employed, and the lyrics are back to being introspective.

Wanderer opens with the short a capella title track, on which she sings: “Oh, wanderer/ I’ve been here wondering/ If your brown eyes still have colour, could I see?/ That night, that night with those hands, those hands/ That night, that night, oh, galleon ring." It sets the tone of the album: it’s an ode to herself. On Woman, she has Lana Del Rey sing with her, the voices of the two women entwining over sparingly used strings, guitar, and drums. Wanderer’s songs narrate Power’s journey—the incessant, yet erratic, touring; motherhood; and the loss of close friends. But they also comment on politics and inequality. On In Your Face, she addresses the divisiveness in politics: “In the age of military, you are engaged with such fanfare activity / Let them do things as they please / In a grave, you’re accounted for / If you were red, you’d be spoken for / Your colour blue is grey."

With every new release, Cat Power has the uncommon ability to keep evolving as a musician. But she also has the very rare talent of making sad songs sound great.

The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Woman’ by Cat Power (featuring Lana Del Rey) from ‘Wanderer’

2. ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ by Cat Power from ‘The Covers Record’

3. ‘New York’ by Cat Power from ‘Jukebox’

4. ‘Living Proof ‘ by Cat Power from ‘The Greatest’

5. ‘Me Voy’ by Cat Power from ‘Wanderer’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

The writer tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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