The last time I saw you/you were on stage/ Your hair was wild/and you were in a rage/You were swinging your guitar around/Cause they wanted to hear that sound/but you didn’t want to play. —from “I Don’t Blame You,” the first track on You Are Free
“I hope you like this tempo,” Cat Power said once onstage. “It’s the only one I know.”
When Chan Marshall, this Atlanta-born enigma, is in a rage, her music brews and shakes through, but her fringed hair doesn’t get wild. She doesn’t swing her guitar around, and the sense is that it’s painful to play. Like What Would the Community Think? in ’96 and The Covers Record in 2000, Cat Power’s latest, You Are Free, has the effect of that odd, quiet kid in school who says little and says it softly—what comes out resonates for its conviction of mind.
“I’m so stressed out.” In front of a sold-out Tonic crowd, in between deep breaths last Sunday night. “I don’t blame you,” the chorus swings in the album’s tone-setting introduction. The song is upbeat and generous in mood. The feline voice—always dead in tune—gushes through the triangle shape of her upward-peaked mouth. Her fingers pat over alternating (and for her, rare) major chords. The song is simple and like a slow, warm dance. Much of this new album is. It leaves listeners with the artist’s signature somberness, moves freely within but hardly away from what may as well be her very own minor Fs and Cs. But You Are Free demonstrates a subtle, hopeful change in sentiment—a relief from Cat Power’s melancholy.
“I’m sorry, it’s my fault. Can I get some more reverb? I’m sorry. Sorry.” Amid blue lights and smoke to a sold-out crowd at Irving Plaza last Tuesday. On the new album’s best track, “Fool,” Marshall sings, “Come along fool/It’s not that it’s bad/It’s not that it’s dead/It’s just that it’s on the tip of your tongue/And you’re so silent.” Like PJ Harvey and Hope Sandoval, Cat Power is a storyteller. But until The Covers Record, Marshall was telling her own sad story. “Where should I hang my head?” she asked at the outset of Community, her fame-gathering third album. But that record was less interior than its predecessors. The Covers Record was about Marshall the musician—here’s me in the music of the greats. Everything was still mottled and beautiful, even on boot-scooting Dylan tracks.
But now, in a self-flagellating career, the silent one—the “disconnected”—is a “fool/ Trying to live and laugh all the time/Sitting alone with your tea and your crying.” “Fool” is finger-plucked and lighthearted, full of reverb. Marshall is not condemning her subject who just can’t get it out. “We all do what we can,” she sings in “Maybe Not.”
“Oh, leave him alone”: in defense of a verbal fan at Irving Plaza last Tuesday night. “We’re all fuckups.” “Don’t you want to be free?” Cat Power asks every fool in “Baby Doll.” Marshall does. The claim to freedom threading through the 14 tracks of You Are Free is about the self-consumed artist’s climb outside of herself. In “Free,” a round of Marshall’s sweet-to-biting vocals spits the word. “Everybody/Come together/Free.”
“Don’t worry, it will be over soon. Can I get some more reverb? Sorry. Sorry” to a half-empty crowd at Irving Plaza last Tuesday. “Red red fire is what you breathe,” “Baby Doll” goes on. Soft, sweet tones rocking back and forth. “Black black black is all you see.”