Cat Power – You Are Free

Cat Power
You Are Free

Having somewhat accidentally acquired the baton of soul-bearing head-spinning balladry from Kristin Hersh with the much-loved Moon Pix in 1998, Chan Marshall (who is 99% of Cat Power) has struggled to sate the appetite of her fanatical followers ever since. A series of shattered and stumbling live performances and awkward attention-deflecting interviews validated the feeling that this is one lady who isn’t willing or able to turn her intensely private music into some kind of group-therapy hostelry. Further perplexity came in the form of The Covers Record in 2000, an undeniably pretty stopgap measure that kept Marshall’s profile ticking over without offering to unravel any of the masterful mysteries of Moon Pix. With such career convolutions in mind, You Are Free, Cat Power’s much-delayed sixth album (and the first in five years to feature new self-penned material), comes with a mountain of expectation looming over it, possibly not the best thing for a chronically shy songwriter. A blessed relief, then, to find that Marshall has finally delivered an album that, arguably, surpasses the miraculous Moon Pix.
Built around alternating/intermingling arrangements of electric/acoustic guitars, plaintive piano pattering, ornately orchestrated strings, double-tracked vocals, and lo-fi drum clunking, You Are Free is unquestionably the most musically eclectic album in the Cat Power catalogue. It certainly confirms that Chan can rock as well as roll with the best of them. Thus the jagged-fuzz pop of “Free” and “Shaking Paper” (the latter with Foo Fighter Dave Grohl on drums) oscillates back to the twisted-rock passages found on Cat Power’s overlooked Matador-debut What Would the Community Think (1996), whilst the sparse accompaniment and smoky vocals of “Maybe Not” recall the otherworldly performances that stopped The Covers Record from being just another writer’s block cover-up. However, it’s the unmeasurably sad but lovely “Good Woman” that provides the richest arrangement, with a serene violin line from The Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis and a spooky chorus of beatific backing vocalists (including Pearl Jammer Eddie Vedder, bizarrely).
New musical strength and confidence aside, at the core Marshall seems no less emotionally and mentally fractured. The inclusion of a folded poster-sized lyric sheet shows that horrors, real or imagined, still haunt this incredibly gifted songwriter. The sublime “I Don’t Blame You” alludes strongly to the hungry demands of fans that some musicians, Marshall included, find overwhelming and intrusive – “You were swingin’ your guitar around / Cuz they wanted to hear that sound / That you didn’t wanna play / I don’t blame you.” It seems that Marshall’s aversion to indie-idol status (“Don’t be in love with the autograph / Just be in love when you love that song”) is as strong as her fear of committing to someone she loves (“I want to be a good woman / And I want for you to be a good man / This is why I will be leaving”).
But if Marshall really wanted Freudian-schooled rock hacks to look away, then she may have been better off leaving the album’s most startlingly track – “Names” – for her private outtakes collection. Coming across as a sequel to her heaviest piano-led tearjerker “Colors And The Kids” (the highlight of highlights from Moon Pix), “Names” ploughs deep into Chan’s assumedly traumatic adolescence. Resurrecting tall or true tales of childhood friends in horrific circumstances, Chan’s delicate delivery of disturbingly deadpan lines such as “His name was Donovan / He was a very good friend / The cards were stacked against him / He was selling cocaine / The last time I saw him / He was 13 years old,” will send shivers down even the sternest of spines.
With 14 tracks across 52 minutes, the only downfall of You Are Free is that it probably gives us too much. For these are songs that need to be loved – just like their author – in individual isolation and away from the hum-drum demands of daily existence. These are songs to bury your heart in, songs that say so much with the simplest of tools, songs that make up the flesh and bones of one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2003.