Album Of The Week

Music that gets to your guts

Cat Power's album Wanderer feels both like a clean slate as well as a lucid-eyed accounting of the singer's life so far and American society at large.
Cat Power's album Wanderer feels both like a clean slate as well as a lucid-eyed accounting of the singer's life so far and American society at large.PHOTO: DOMINO

Cat Power aka Chan Marshall's Wanderer is stripped back to simmer and sink into the listener

The album cover for the 10th studio record of Chan Marshall, better known by her stage name Cat Power, speaks volumes about her state of mind these days: an arm holding her instrument of choice and her blue-eyed toddler son peeping from the bottom right corner.

Wanderer, then, sums up the two most essential things: music and motherhood. They are all the American singer-songwriter needs and why she is able to wander, artistically and beyond anyone's idea of what she should be.

The album was rejected by the executives from her former label Matador, with someone reportedly telling her to listen to Adele's 25 album, saying that "this is how a record is supposed to sound".

Their loss is Domino's gain.

Wanderer is the testament of an itinerant artist who does not bend to anyone's will, but only her own and listeners should all be thankful for it.

The music is stripped-back, with plenty of negative spaces for things to simmer, to sink in, to get to your guts. It feels solitary, vulnerable, brave, complex and entirely open.

  • Cat Power's album Wanderer feels both like a clean slate as well as a lucid-eyed accounting of the singer's life so far and American society at large.

    FOLK BLUES

    WANDERER

    Cat Power

    Domino

    4 stars

It feels both like a clean slate as well as a lucid-eyed accounting of Marshall's life so far and American society at large.

In the light of the #MeToo movement, Woman - a duet with Lana Del Rey, another musician endlessly appraised for her gender - is timely. It starts off as a spiritual incantation, then blooms into a feminist march, and a glorious rude gesture at her ex-label: "If I had a dime for every time/Tell I'm not what you need/If I had a quarter I would pull it together/And I would take it to the bank and then leave."

She takes solace, too, in a ballad by another woman artist. She pinpoints the heartache in Rihanna's Stay, breaking the bits apart and reconstituting in her own way. How she sings, delays, trips over her vowels against a scattering of desolate piano keys, keeps you on tenterhooks.

Black hearkens to the mystical blues of her early days and beyond to the early 20th-century travelling folk troubadour tradition.

Over a tightly strummed guitar, her voice rues the violent treatment by some bloke "with an empty gaze", who may be the Grim Reaper, an abusive ex-lover or an unfortunate friend who died from a drug overdose.

Indeed, it is easy to overlook the smarts in her throwaway demeanour. In Your Face is a thinly veiled cautionary tale of a Trump-like character ("You never take what you say seriously"), who must face his reflection in the mirror. "Don't you dare forget it," she chants over spectral guitar and a subtly insistent Tex-Mex groove.

Robbin Hood is another jeremiad delivered in the minor key. In a hush-a-bye voice, she takes arms against the indolent, crazy rich who steal from the poor: "Gun to your head, they want solely your money."

Accountability and self-determination also underscore songs such as Horizon, a celebration of familial roots, where she addresses each member over gentle piano keys: "Mother, I wanna hold your hand/ Father, I need you to be a man/ Sister, if there's any help in me, I'm always on my way."

At the same time, she is casting an eye elsewhere, already on the move, assuring kin and kith that they are on her mind, while the music morphs, her voice gently Auto-Tuned into unfamiliar shapes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2018, with the headline 'Music that gets to your guts'. Print Edition | Subscribe