Chan Marshall takes a lot of shit. For much of her career, the lede has concerned her onstage discomfort, which has run the gamut from mumbled and shambling to occasionally plagued by personal torment. As a caricature rather than an artist, Chan Marshall has been pegged as a kind of anti-celebrity, a fragile artist for whom the music is sometimes seen as secondary to damaged behavior. And, without even getting into issues of sexism or just outright meanness, it’s an unfair perspective on an artist that completely ignores why she’s there on the stage to begin with.
But I have high hopes that her latest album, You Are Free will once and for all overshadow the fragile persona she’s unintentionally cultivated. The songs rank among the best she’s written and display a greater array of depth than on any of her previous albums. Yet, more importantly, Marshall’s voice is bolder and more direct this time around, the singer-songwriting achieving a level of maturity in which she’s seemingly growing more comfortable in her own skin.
To be sure, there is a fair amount of pain and vulnerability in Marshall’s songs, but the way in which she transforms them into affecting, often triumphant anthems speaks to her own personal strengths. You Are Free starts things off with “I Don’t Blame You,” a minimalist pop song consisting of little more than a piano riff and Chan’s melancholy southern drawl. Yet it’s the content of the song that makes it so arresting, Marshall singing “You were swinging your guitar around/ Cause they wanted to hear that sound/ but you didn’t want to play,” possibly about herself, possibly about Kurt Cobain, or potentially both. The next song, “Free,” is similar in content but almost diametrically opposed in execution, a four chord anti-celebrity anthem strummed and crooned over a drum machine, with a rallying cry of “Don’t fall in love with the autograph.”
Whereas on Cat Power’s last proper album, Moon Pix, Chan enlisted the aid of The Dirty Three to add some extra layers to her simple melodies, this time around, Marshall is paid a visit by some Seattle luminaries, namely Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl, credited as E.V. and D.G., respectively. Vedder’s lends backup vocals to the outstanding gospel-tinged “Good Woman,” one of the more beautiful breakup songs of late. Grohl, on the other hand, gets behind the drums on “Speak for Me” and “He War,” the two loudest, most “rock” moments on the album, and probably in Cat Power history.
The five years we had to endure before hearing new, original Cat Power material has paid off. You Are Free is Cat Power’s best album to date, and proof positive that whatever demons come Chan Marshall’s way are most profoundly exorcised through her songs. Never has Cat Power sounded so confident.