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We all know the moments when our best friends stopped being ours alone: Beck releasing “Loser,” Elliott Smith performing at the Oscars, Lucinda Williams getting her ass kissed in the New Yorker. Suddenly, you’re hearing your songs being piped in at Xando. Suddenly, you’re 10 rows back instead of sitting cross-legged in front of your favorite singer. The hush is gone, and so is the intimacy you once shared. Now you can hear people talking through the performancethe singer’s show has become merely the place to be.
Before, back when she seemed like someone you almost knew, you remembered where you saw Cat Power’s Chan Marshall. It’s not that you saw her everywhere, but she did occasionally appear during daylight hours, in between making inscrutably dark records. You remembered, as my brother does, making her Mexican food”It was pesto-chicken soft tacos,” he says, a food-service-career highlight. It was easy to fall in love with hershe made brutal records that you could close in on, that could close in on you. There seemed to be nothing in your bedroom but you and Marshall and her voice and her sleepy-weepy guitar. One fan wrote a whole song about just wanting to buy her luncha burrito, no less. The same guy penned another tune, “Cat Power Is a Good Cop,” that’s even creepier than Marshall’s own stuff: “I want to date Cat Power/I bet we’d hit it off/I wonder if she’s really nuts/Because I think I could benefit from dating someone that unstable.”
The dude got it all wrong. Maybe we all did, thinking we could keep Marshall in our bedrooms forever. Marshall made sad songs, but they were glorious sad songs. They were uplifting in a way that real depression never fucking is. Her depression purred. It slinked. It crept down from your speakers in trancelike melodies. Her songs sank into you, dragging so slow, as if each melody had been dipped in wet cement. Her guitar sometimes sounded as if it had just fallen from the sky and thudded into her purty lap, but her lyrics stuck with you like psalms: “The same day they fell in love/The same day they died in love.”
Those early records1996’s Myra Lee and What Would the Community Thinkall sounded like good mysteries. Marshall never really got around to the details of why the bad things happened. Who was this woman? Where did she come from? Atlanta, for one. But everywhere else, too. And her voice suggested all those tiny places in between, a voice batter-dipped and slurred from the long ride. Sometimes it sounded like what Samantha Morton might if she stopped playing mutes. With its darker songs and wider and wilder vocalizing, 1998’s Moon Pix solidified Marshall’s reputation as indie’s favorite goth chick. But she blunted her full crossover potential by waiting another two years before dropping The Covers Record, an album of sparsely interpreted favorites by the likes of Nina Simone, Michael Hurley, and Smog. Even when she appeared in Gap print ads, she looked like this lost thing your mom wouldn’t know anything about.
You Are Free, Marshall’s first album of new material in five years, has been billed as her coming-out party, her chance at the TRL mikeor at least at Michelle Branch’s advance money. The new batch of 14 songs pretties up the depression just a bit and shows that Marshall finally made it to L.A. She hung there long enough to connect with some hotshit producer and two famous friends, referred to in the liner notes as “E.V.” and “D.G.” (That’s Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl to you.) Has the time of losing Cat Power to the rest of the world finally come? Well, let’s get this out of the way right now: The new tunes are catchy as hell, and Vedder sings on two of them.
Burrito Boy and his altar-making ilk probably wish Marshall would simply stay in that confessional ghetto. If you’re a singer-songwriter who lives on creating a sense of intimacy, branching out can be a problem. Even succeeding can be a problem. The best thing you can do is either die (see Nick Drake) or go loony (see Syd Barrett). The worst thing you can do is turn bombastic, like Dylan or Patti Smith. The second-worst thing you can do is turn into Ani DiFranco and whittle your tunes down to lefty bumper stickers. You Are Free falls somewhere else. Musically, the disc amounts to a truce between large and small ambitions, between lo-fi closeness and kicking out that bedroom door.
For once, everything fits, everything feels in its right place. Even though Marshall has always acquitted herself when working with big-name playersSonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, the Dirty Threethe music has always felt shabby, not up to her voice. The guitars overwhelmed, leaving her with nowhere to go but up in octaves. The early tunes wailed when they didn’t have to. But on You Are Free, the arrangements respect her well enough to put her voice and its mystery up front. The lo-fi bitsthe rough guitars on “Speak for Me,” the wobbly girls’ choir on “Good Woman,” the sound of Marshall’s fingers scraping the frets on “Free”don’t feel ornamental at all. These songs are just rightmoving without being portentous, haunting without turning into goth cliché.
Marshall opens with “I Don’t Blame You.” Soothing, crooning, over a few piano chords, the song would have fit perfectly on The Covers Record. Here, she describes watching a musician who stands indifferently onstage, unwilling to play for the crowd: “I don’t blame U/Been around the world/In many situations/Been inside many heads/In different positions/But you never wanted them that way.” Marshall could be talking about herself, justifying what’s to follow: one of the album’s few real departures, “Free.”
All New Wave sheen and neon power chords, with a skippy beat and lyrics as deep as frosted highlights, “Free” is by far Marshall’s most blatantly dumb song to date. I didn’t listen to the rest of the album for weeks because of this track. But why be a spoilsport? The song works because it’s so unabashedly simple; the production doesn’t gloss over the little detailsthe cheap organ, the fret buzz, the simple pleasure of hearing one spooky sister singing, “Come on and take a chance/A true romance when U dance.” More important, the song works because of Marshall’s self-confidence: This is a different Cat Power record. Maybe you’ll hear this song in Xando; maybe you won’t.
Marshall has said she’s always wanted to make a real record, one on which she took her time to get things right. You Are Free begins to sound like that record. The first half offers a new anger at the world and Marshall’s place in it as the indie It Girl, especially on the fuzzed-out “Speak for Me” and “He War.” Instead of wailing, ending each line in screams as she used to, Marshall sings each word with authority, even rapping the lines “I’m not that hot new chic/And if you want me to run with it/We’re onto your same old trick.”
The last half of the album has Marshall back in the bedroom. The songs are hung on the barest of thingsminor piano chords, wistful guitar strums, a voice that’s both hushed and prominent. These are blues, but joyous blues. On “Maybe Not,” you can hear Marshall’s foot stomping in time as she sings, “Shake this land/A wish or a command/A dream that I see/Don’t kill it/It’s free.”
But there’s still that new defiance. The main thread through You Are Free is just what the title suggests: freedom, artistic or otherwise. The piano-led waltz “Names” chronicles all the lost souls from the narrator’s pastPerry, Naomi, Cheryl, Donovan, people haunted by drugs and abuse who seem to never get to taste freedom and independence. It’s telling that Marshall ends the songs with the line “I don’t know where they are.” You Are Free is driven by that notionleaving depression and the badness behind but still being haunted by them. You can leave, Marshall suggests, but you will always look back and remember. Even so, she’s not reliving her past here; she’s just cleaning out her closet.
As Marshall rummages, her demons are vanquished like so much clove-cigarette smoke. By the end, when she’s singing “Evolution” with Eddie, she’s nobody’s damaged muse. Not Burrito Boy’s, and especially not Mr. Vedder’s. He whispers along with her plain-spoken reading: “Better call on evolution/Better way to make a revolution/Better make up your mind quick/Better make up your mind quick…” His voice trails off and then hers goes, too. Marshall taps the keys of her piano for a few more bars, unwilling to leave. Then the sound just fades out and she’s gone. CP
Cat Power performs Saturday, March 22, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. For more information, call (202) 393-0930.