Part and parcel with being indie rock fan is getting into arguments about what, exactly, indie rock is. Canonical bands and works exist in all sounds, shapes, and sizes, from the ‘80s DIY days to internet-driven present. The term is more ambiguous than it has ever been, encompassing more sonic variety than ever – some would claim indie is now more of a marketing term than a signifier of any actual artistic or business independence; others would counter that was always the case. Regardless, it is impossible to argue with the sheer breadth of what is defined as indie rock in 2018.
Cat Power’s music has existed in this sphere for almost 25 years. The project of Georgia-born Chan Marshall, the Cat Power catalog sits somewhere at the intersection of folk, blues, and punk, looking at those genres from different angles and in varying combinations at different times.
Cat Power’s music can be startlingly vulnerable, both on record and in performance; this fragility defined her work for a number of years. In other instances, Marshall sounds like a firebrand who has never been unsure of herself in her life. Both extremes are conveyed by the one constant in her career – her singular, lived-in voice. It draws you in not with force or virtuosity, but with the sheer variety of shapes and textures on its surface, like oceanside cliffs carved by wind, water, and time.
Wanderer (out Oct. 5 via Domino), Marshall’s tenth album as Cat Power, is a powerful distillation of her artistic strengths. Self-produced, the album was recorded in Miami and Los Angeles, though neither place makes itself evident in the recordings – Marshall’s sound is too much its own, well-defined world for outside elements to sneak in unless invited. It is an album both alluring in its starkness and confident in its simplicity. No sound is out of place here; Wanderer retains a remarkable warmth and focus, while being expansive in feeling and mood.
It is also the first record in over 20 years not to be released on indie giant Matador Records. Marshall told the New York Times that her former label told her it was “not good enough, not strong enough to put out” – demanding hits, a Matador executive supposedly played her an Adele album in the studio for reference. Marshall stuck to her guns with the album and parted ways with her longtime recording home, releasing the album instead through fellow indie power player Domino.
Wanderer begins with the self-titled track, a modern-day spiritual delivered a capella. It’s a showcase for the depth and power in Marshall’s beautiful, craggy voice. “In Your Face” is spacious and quiet – just some guitar, hand percussion, voice, and a piano that is somehow both jaunty and elegant. “You Get” is the nocturnal longing of PJ Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea but bleary-eyed, with its edges blunted by reverb. Pushed forward by the drums, Marshall’s backing vocals creep in, then disappear like smoke into the background.
“Woman” (which features backing vocals from recent tourmate Lana Del Rey) is the only song added after Matador’s rejection. Marshall sounds empowered and strong, singing “I’m a woman of my word / Or haven’t you heard / My word’s the only thing I’ve ever needed / I’m a woman,” backed with touches echoing The Greatest (with a little less Muscle Shoals). It’s a soul song that just woke up from a nap, gathering steam throughout but so in control it never really needs to let it off.
“Horizon” is similarly resolute but more introspective, with a piano, guitar, and softly brushed drums in quiet but deep conversation. Autotuned backing vocals enter during the second verse, hearkening back to the electronic textures of 2014’s Sun. It’s alien but not off-putting, sharing a kindship with Bon Iver and Burial’s experiments in conveying feeling through the human voice by deconstructing it entirely.
Marshall is lauded for her skill at recontextualizing other people’s songs – albums like The Covers Record and Jukebox borrowed from folk music’s interpretive tradition in new, modern ways to discover fresh meaning within older work. “Stay”, which kicks off Side B, is a cover of the Rihanna song that exhibits those strengths. It’s a killer, marked by only piano, voice, and strings. Marshall is pining here, but she isn’t desperate – she is generous enough to give whatever she is feeling space to exist while remaining the master of it throughout.
“Black” takes on folk’s sonic influence to explore death; “Robbin Hood” borrows from the more spiritual elements of that tradition. Using just voice, acoustic guitar, and percussion that sounds like softly rattling chains, it has the passed-down quality of something from a bygone era.
“Nothing Really Matters” is a classic Cat Power ballad, simple and spacious. It is deeply empathetic, echoing back to piano-driven highlights from 2003’s You Are Free like “I Don’t Blame You”. “Me Voy” is composed of close mic’d nylon string guitar, tiny piano accents, and Marshall’s ever-powerful voice. “I’m leaving / good as gone” she sings, without a hint of internal conflict. Her declaration is forceful, but it doesn’t carry a protective shell – it is simply the way it is.
Wanderer finishes with “Wanderer/Exit”, a bookend to the first track featuring guitar and horns this time around. The melody is slightly different and the song more forceful – Marshall sounds proud and defiant as she brings things to a close.
It is a fitting end to the latest chapter in Cat Power’s story, and a culmination of sorts for the two-plus decades of music that preceded it. “This album is about my journey up to this point,” said Marshall in the album’s press release. “[Wanderer] represents the course my life has taken in this journey – going from town to town, with my guitar, telling my tale; with reverence to the people who did this generations before me. Folk singers, blues singers, and everything in between. They were all wanderers, and I am lucky to be among them.” Wanderer sits among her very best work simply by being the most her of that work. It is a declaration of well-earned strength, lived-through truth, and hard-won independence from one of indie’s most treasured artists.
‘Wanderer’ drops Oct. 5 via Domino Records. Stream it below. Don’t miss Cat Power at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on November 21.
Words by Andrew Ledford
Cat Power tour includes Ace Theatre stop; new album in October