Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
If there is one dependable feature about Cat Power’s intermittently released albums, it’s that you don’t know which direction Chan Marshall is headed until you spin them.
So it is that 2013’s synth/electronics-drenched Sun was a far cry from her previous set of originals, 2006’s Memphis soul-infused The Greatest. After another extended five year wait, Marshall reverts back to her intimate singer-songwriter guise with Wanderer. The opening a cappela title track sets the introspective, stripped-down tone, a palette where the accompaniment is mostly only Marshall’s piano, guitar, stark percussion and hushed, emotionally naked voice. She gets vocal assistance from tour mate Lana Del Ray on first single “Woman,” an empowering declaration of who she is with the lyrics “My word’s the only thing I’ve ever needed,” atop sparse guitar, drums and subtle underlying strings. There are hints of Laura Nyro when Marshall accompanies herself with raw acoustic piano on “Nothing Really Matters” (“When you see a face in the crowd with a look of obsession/ There’s no subtle way to say there’s plenty of defense and discretion”), and on her lovely, emotionally searing version of Rihanna’s “Stay,” the album’s lone cover and one of its highlights.
The songs, according to Marshall’s notes, reflect her wandering spirit as they represent “the course my life has taken in this journey-going from town to town, with my guitar, telling my tale …” But that’s just a vague structure since the lyrics are often as amorphous as the tunes. The most direct story is told in the lyrically profuse “Black” with Marshall playing spare guitar chords and overdubbing her voice on a tale of a complex relationship, tainted by the devil, with someone who seems to have abused her trust. Skeletal, primitive Velvet Underground-styled drums push the meditative “You Get” as she tells a friend “And you will live in the world, and you’ll get what you get.”
Marshall’s tenth studio album, in an erratic if fascinating 25-year career, is an intimate, multifaceted reflection of her always complex, frequently indistinct character. These often inscrutable songs offer kaleidoscopic glimpses into what seems like a complicated persona. They softly weave and twirl, eschewing traditional forms, both lyrically and musically, for a more unstructured style that will take a few listens to warm to. How much you’ll learn about her wandering journey is unclear, but Marshall’s deeply introspective approach is worth spending time with to unravel the artist’s dense wandering spirit.