Monday, June 11, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #207 - Cat Power – You Are Free

After living outside of the United States for three years, I went back home to upstate South Carolina in 2003 and worked at the independent record store I shopped at growing up. Following that lengthy break from U.S. pop culture, I spent a lot of the summer catching up on recent developments in pop and independent music. Although I may have had a passing awareness of Cat Power (the stage name of Chan Marshall) in the late 1990s, I felt like she became an unavoidable entity in indie rock in the summer of 2003. I kept drifting into conversations with coworkers and customers about a recent Cat Power show in the region characterized by an exhilarating, yet unpredictable performance. Earlier in the year, Cat Power released You Are Free, an album that provides an excellent entry point for the work of this exceptional, vital artist.
 You Are Free opens with “I Don’t Blame You,” as a stately piano figure structures Marshall’s sensitive and direct address to a musician who struggled with the cost of success. The song highlights Marshall’s skill at evocative songwriting as it blends equal parts elegy for a kindred spirit and personal declaration of defiance. “I Don’t Blame You” introduces the album’s theme of Marshall reflecting on the notion of success, the life of an artist, and her choice to pursue this life. At this pivotal stage of Cat Power’s career, Marshall draws out this conflict between wanting to be a rock star and dealing with the consequences of the attendant success. This conflict has defined Marshall’s work and has often played out in real time in front of audiences all over the world. In this context, “I Don’t Blame You” feels like an act of bravery and a commitment to go forward despite the risks. The second song, “Free,” continues with the topic of songs about music, but breaks away from the thoughtful character study of the first song and jumps into a hypnotic guitar rhythm that sets the stage for lyrics that feel like free association about the unfettered joy music can bring into our lives. Up next, “Good Woman” offers the point of view from one side of a love that has begun to fall apart. Although the speaker states her resolve to leave, the song echoes with her confession, “I will miss your heart so tender.” The song begins with a sober guitar line that Warren Ellis soon accents with an aching and beautiful violin performance. As Marshall’s voice grows from fragile to confident, “Good Woman” blossoms into one of the album’s finest moments complete with a children’s chorus and backing vocals from Eddie Vedder. “Evolution,” the album’s final song, features a piano part reminiscent enough of “I Don’t Blame You” to provide the album with bookends of a sort, but this song delivers something far more elusive than the straightforward narrative of the first song. This haunting, enigmatic final note confounds as much as the first song invites and it ensures that the listener will soon return to this collection of songs.

A year and a half after the release of You Are Free, Chan Marshall worked with Handsome Boy Modeling School on their sophomore album, White People, and contributed the album’s most enchanting and surprising collaboration in the form of the sultry R&B workout, “I’ve Been Thinking.” The song’s polished production and nonchalant sex appeal hint at the kind of territory Marshall would explore in greater depth a couple years later on her next studio album and career breakout, The Greatest. In 2012, Marshall finally released a proper follow-up to The Greatest with Sun, a restless and adventurous studio album of original material that finds her embracing both her rock star charisma and her weirder inclinations with confidence and joy. You Are Free strikes an excellent balance between Cat Power’s spartan and engrossing early recordings and the richer, more nuanced sounds Marshall would delve into in the second half of her career.

-         John Parsell

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