Cat Power – Wanderer

The story goes that Matador played this experienced and relatively successful singer/songwriter an Adele album, the point being made to demonstrate what a hit album sounds like. Despite a working relationship with the esteemed American label stretching back 20 years, they didn’t think Wanderer was worth their time or effort.

Indeed, Chan Marshall has been through some changes of late. She had given birth to her first child in 2014, and decided she wanted to move to Australia, even bagging a job as a bartender. “Who doesn’t want a simple life?” she said recently. However, the pull of music became too strong, and with Wanderer, she sounds less resigned than previous albums. Yet, despite the life-affirming qualities of children, there is still that unfulfilled black hole in her life. It’s her honest expression of her troubled mind that continues to endear her to an appreciative fan base.

Though, with a back story that involved substance abuse, depression and an emotional vulnerability that is all too easy to pin on a person (especially a woman) there are many misconceptions about this artist. At heart, she is just expressing what many of us feel and go through in our lives, without having that public outlet to lay it all out. Music has enabled her, albeit subconsciously, to forge an identity as a rootless seeker and storyteller, which is at heart what Wanderer brings to the surface.

Self produced, and sparse, with mainly just piano, guitar and multi-tracked voice, Wanderer is a far cry from her previous album, Sun, released all of six years ago; a warm, electronic-infused work that at the time marked a departure for Cat Power. This time, although the variable moods are apparent, she has corralled them into a sense of wandering, yet hanging-by-a-string belonging. Indeed, the cover artwork is a heavily cropped outdoors shot of just her arm, her guitar, and her young child.

It is also defiant. British label Domino saw the merits of Wanderer, and the addition of one track from the album Power gave to them, ‘Woman’, has given her an extra fillip. Recorded with Lana Del Rey on backing vocals – who recently took Power on tour to Europe – they sing: “If I had a dime for every time / You tell me I’m not what you need / If I had a quarter I would pull it together / And I would take it to the bank and then leave”. Quite.

Yet, mainly, Wanderer is about love, and loss, the lead and title track is a summation of the spirit of the album, Power singing against a haunting backdrop of hymnal folk: Twist of fate would have me sing at your wedding / With a baby on my mind and your soul in between.” While on the piano-led and downbeat cover of Rihannon’s ‘Stay’, Power is drawn to the song’s desire for companionship.

There is also an oblique song about Donald Trump, the funereal bossa nova of ‘In Your Face’, about selfish righteousness via the languid swampy beat of ‘You Get’, and the warm and family-loving ‘Horizon’ (which features Jim White on drums and Judah Bauer of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, on guitar). There’s also the riveting story-song about being literally saved from death (‘Black’), the very sparse guitar and tambourine of ‘Robbin Hood’, a time honoured yet poetic look at never-ending financial injustices as well as the simple melancholic repetition of the Spanish flavoured ‘Me Voy’. Meanwhile, ‘Wanderer/Exit’, is almost a word-for-word remake of the lead track, but this time with a western desert tumbleweed soundscape.

Although Cat Power has said recently that, “I didn’t know I loved myself when I was younger”, and on ‘Woman’ she sings: “Doctor says I was not my past / He said I was finally free”, ‘Nothing Really Matters’ shines a gloomy light on the disconnect that she still feels: It’s so hard, a learned test / It’s like nothing really matters”. However, she fights on. Cat Power in name, Cat Power in person.

Jeff Hemmings