Cat Power’s Chan Marshall is a master of her own sound. She may not be the most virtuosic instrumentalist, nor a classically trained singer, or even have a clear message, but this doesn’t matter. Her greatest talent lies in the ether, in the raw intensity of her soft-spoken lyrics and imperfect piano that seem to evoke every feeling at once. Marshall’s music as Cat Power is heavy with the quiet gravity of emotion and longing, something that comes to a peak on her newest record, Wanderer. The album harkens back to her earlier work on critically acclaimed albums like The Greatest, in which Marshall weaves abstract yet poignant storytelling, spare instrumentation and her uniquely understated voice together to create cinematic soundscapes. It seems fated that Wanderer comes as Power’s 10th full-length production: In every song, it is easy to hear her influences from both past and present come together to make something filled with an uncanny individuality. The album marks an important point in time for Marshall after 20 years in music, as she cuts a new and bright trail for herself through the industry.
It wasn’t easy for Marshall to release this album in the first place, facing pushback from her previous label, Matador, to the point of breaking ties. On the tails of her 2012 album Sun’s success, which combined her classic pared-down sound with heavier electronic production, the mainstream sound of small-time hits like “Manhattan” were the clear path for Marshall to follow, but instead the singer stayed true to her own vision of the future. And thank God she did ― Wanderer, completely self-written and self-produced, is a tour de force. Marshall’s work as Cat Power on this record could be blues, folk, rock or indie pop, but it’s difficult to pin down. This is the best part of her music by far, but an understandable reason for frustration from labels past. Listening to Cat Power is like trying to catch minnows; as soon as you think you have finally captured her in a certain light, she slips right through your fingers again, dancing into another wistful tangent.
The intangible quality of Wanderer may be confusing at first, but once a listener has accepted it, each track is an adventure of its own. A clear standout is the Lana Del Rey collaboration “Woman,” the album’s second single and one of its most complex arrangements. The song is at once an anthem, soliloquy and battle cry, ruminating on the double-consciousness of womanhood and the need for self-reliance in a world full of doubters. Del Rey is a perfect partner for Marshall on the single and the two are clearly kindred spirits; the same ethereal magic is present in either musician’s work, and it was only a matter of time until they found each other. Directly following “Woman” is the slow ballad “Horizon,” a letter to family as Cat Power leaves home to face the open road. The simplicity of the tune mirrors “Woman”’s complications to cradle the listener in comfort and nostalgia that eventually dissolves into fragmented vocal effects, mimicking the shimmer of the sun as it goes down in the song. Other highlights on Wanderer are “You Get,” a bluesy collection of angst and vocal layering that collides harmoniously, and Marshall’s unplugged piano-and-strings cover of Rihanna’s hit “Stay,” a hauntingly melodic ballad with immense emotional weight.
The record begins and concludes with different versions of the title track “Wanderer,” Marshall’s meditation on love through the lens of loss. “Wanderer” and “Wanderer/Exit” are two sides of the same coin, acting as bookends to the rambling emotional content of the album at large. “Oh wanderer, I’ve been wondering,” she sings, “If your brown eyes still have color, could I see?”
The 11 songs on Marshall’s most recent opus set a parallel between lover and wanderer, on the uncertainty of it all and the answer that music can offer. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry at any given portion of the album, but that is where its true beauty hides. Cat Power is a vessel for Chan Marshall’s purest thoughts, and on Wanderer, every moment comes through crystallized, suspended in time by her elusive magic.