Marshall sounds as though she has finally arrived at a comfortable place.
Chan Marshall’s 10th Cat Power album, Wanderer, arrives after a creative reset, just as her previous record, Sun, did six years ago. Her appearance went over a complete makeover during that period, with the songwriter shaving her hair off for a bleach-blonde buzz cut, and so did her music. Crisp drum beats thumped behind her acoustic-guitar blues, and her intimate pianos looped like a sample. But if Sun saw Marshall dismantle her old identity in favor of a clean slate, she regains her sense of self as Cat Power in Wanderer by circling back to her old haunts.
Wanderer echoes the history of Cat Power as if Marshall is making peace with the darkness of her past. The pop beats disappear in favor of the traditional folk sound that the songwriter has played since the beginning of her career. While the lonely parables heard more in the back half of the album recall her more lo-fi ’90s albums, the inspired warmth of the first few songs taps into the well-polished Southern blues of 2006’s The Greatest. Bold studio experiments familiar to the music of Sun still appear, most notably in the use of Auto-Tune in “Horizon,” a technique that channels the solemn folk of Justin Vernon more than modern-day pop.
As she rediscovers the strength in her past works, Marshall sounds as though she’s writing songs as warnings to her old naive self. “You Get” echoes the vital message of “Nothin’ But Time,” her grand 10-minute meditation in Sun, reminding how it’s never too late to begin again, except her New Age voice has now grown more urgent to advise her to just commit despite voices of self-doubt telling her otherwise. “Black” and “Robbin Hood” meanwhile unfold as a blues fable about the consequences of remaining naive, with both stories ending in loss of life one way or another.
Marshall sounds freer and more assured as she lets her thoughts unreel. A very loose rhythmic cadence guides her lyrics, which read as part casual aside, part handed-down wisdom. Her verses follow their own logic to structure with her often pausing to meditate upon a message she seems to stumble upon by chance. Rather than hooks or choruses, the songs are driven by these sets of central mantras that could run forever if she so wishes. The psychedelic “Horizon” seems as though she wants to break away from structure and form entirely to let the emotion she pours into her words speak for itself.
Moving away from the insular nature of her past, Marshall’s openness to inspiration extends to outside sources as well. The songwriter breaks apart a Rihanna record, “Stay,” to find herself in it, claiming the naked, somber pianos as well as the pop singer’s need for company as hers. For the duet “Woman,” she also shares kinship with Lana Del Rey, who knows more than enough about fame and reputation. The latter singer can be heard on record, supporting the performance with ad libs, but her contribution is felt more spiritually like Rihanna’s. Like the cover of “Stay,” the guest voice on “Woman” adds perspective to Marshall’s stories of womanhood, assuring that she isn’t the only one misunderstood.
Marshall sounds as though she has finally arrived at a comfortable place in Wanderer after decades of exhausting work, and the effort can be heard with the songs echoing her past accomplishments. Yet she bookends the record with the title track that announces an arrival and exit of a time of peace. The course of Cat Power still seems like it can shift abruptly as it has done many times before. But if Marshall wanted to start all over again, Wanderer suggests she can get through the process just fine.