Cat Power – the performing name of Atlanta, Georgia singer-songwriter Chan Marshall – has been releasing music for nearly 25 years now. Ever since her 1994 debut Dear Sir, she’s been distilling classic genres of modern American music – soul, blues and folk – into her own unique blend of modern torch songs, underpinned by a sharp sense of melody and lyrics that combine the personal with the universal.
Over her first half-dozen records, the rougher, lo-fi edges of Marshall’s sound were gradually polished, culminating in 2006’s lush, expansive The Greatest, Cat Power’s most accessible release yet. A six year gap followed (punctuated only by covers project Jukebox) before Marshall re-emerged with Sun, which saw her venture into electronic instrumentation for the first time.
Fast forward to 2018, and Cat Power is back again after another half decade and more of silence. On Wanderer, Marshall abandons both the bold, soaring grandeur of The Greatest and the intricate experimentation of Sun to deliver a collection of simple, unadorned songs that rank with the very best of her career.
Produced by Marshall and mixed by Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Beck), Wanderer feels like the work of an artist now completely comfortable in her own skin and at the peak of her creative powers. It opens with the graceful, gospel-tinged a Capella title track, almost hymnal in its purity, before melting into the lilting piano ballad In Your Face. This song sets the template for much of the rest of the record: just Marshall’s effortlessly emotive voice and fluid piano, with guitar and lolloping percussion providing just a hint of friction.
Wanderer is a record that’s not afraid to be unashamedly mainstream rather than remaining the work of a defiantly indie maverick. This direction is most obvious on Woman, a so-so duet with tour mate Lana Del Rey that celebrates female strength, and the gentle swirls of auto-tuned vocal on Horizon. Marshall – long a hugely idiosyncratic, effective interpreter of other artists’ songs – even takes on a Rihanna cover, imbuing the superstar Barbadian’s hollow, formulaic original with a subtle, bruised elegance.
Yet Wanderer is at its best when Marshall is journeying alone, allowing her own unique voice to take centre stage. Black and Robbin Hood are both quietly stunning acoustic strums, with the latter in particular carrying the timeless power of an ancient folk ballad. The melancholy, haunting Nothing Really Matters and Me Voy showcase Cat Power at her most gothic and unsettling, while stately closing track Wanderer/Exit is lent an added dimension by an evocative, mournful trumpet, completing an outstanding second half of the record.
Throughout, Marshall feels in total command, stripped back but self-assured, singing about everything from Trumpian dysfunction (In Your Face) and family relationships (Horizon) to corporate greed (Robbin Hood). Most of all though, Wanderer is an album about developing your own identity in an ever-changing, often troubling world. Arguably more than ever before, Cat Power has achieved that goal here.