I love a sad song. My favorite pastime is grabbing my over-ear headphones and sinking into songs and albums full of tragedy and heartbreak. (If I blast sad music through my speakers, my partner asks me to turn it off because it actively depresses him. This bugs me, but he has a point.)
I've been meditating on why I find so much comfort in the doom and gloom of artists like Cat Power. Though somewhat masochistic, I love when music sends complex feelings, especially the more tragic ones, through my body like a shockwave. I'm awed by artists who put their pain on a platter, only to slice it apart and show everyone the even murkier center. This sort of self-criticism, performed in front of such a large audience, moves me.
Cat Power, made up of Chan Marshall, treads these murky waters. Many songs from her repertoire deal with self-deprecation and self-doubt, as well as a longing for connection. Though her body of work is varied, there's a familiarity in Marshall's voice that, to me, feels like coming home. I've listened to Moon Pix and What Would The Community Think enough times that it feels like a moody soundtrack playing throughout the background of my life. Her intense musical world has truly been a therapeutic, emotional outlet for me when going through chaotic periods in life and trying to figure out all the complicated parts.
Like her music, Marshall's life has had its ups and downs. I was surprised to see a new Cat Power album, Wanderer, will be dropping this October. It's been six years since the release of Sun, a tour that was cut short due to money problems and Marshall's struggle with angioedema. So far, the title track, as well as a track called "Woman," have been released.
"Wanderer," is short and fairly bare, made up of just Marshall's vocals with extra reverb. She seems to be singing about a long-lost friend, a wanderer whose eyes she wants to see again. The chord progression is standard, reminding me of the earlier folk songs of Bob Dylan, of whom Marshall is a noted fan. The song sounds like every other Cat Power song, and also like no other Cat Power song. Her voice hasn't changed, and still emits the echoey, airy croon she's given us for the past two decades.
On the track, she sings of longing for another wanderer who's been out of her life for some time. An aching feeling is there, yet so is a hopefulness that comes with the narrative of journeying for a long time and discovering more of oneself. Harmonizing with her own lead vocal, she creates a chorus of Chans, reminding us that her voice is the most emotive instrument she has access to. It's the perfect piece to reintroduce us to her heavy world.
While "Wanderer" tells of a journey and longing for the one who's far away, "Woman" provides a better illustration of what that journey has entailed. Featuring Lana del Rey on harmonies and backup vocals, the song opens with lyrics,
"If you know people who know me
You might want them to speak
To tell you 'bout the girl or the woman they know
More than you think you know about me
More than you think you know me."
To me, it's clear that Marshall is addressing her past touring issues. Even prior to the cancellation of the Sun tour, Marshall developed something of a "reputation" for putting on an erratic, inconsistent show. As a result, she offers up a "you think you know me but you don't know me" refrain, wiping the slate of past issues to move ahead on new journies.
I was in the crowd at the State Theatre in Ithaca New York at the start of Cat Power's Sun tour. Throughout the performance, Marshall appeared very distraught, pacing on stage, apologizing into the mic, calling herself a "fuckup," and crying while handing out flowers and t-shirts to the audience from in front of the stage. It was hard for me to witness this, especially as the audience gawked and took the physical objects from her without really saying anything or acknowledging how upset she was. I left feeling upset and worried for Marshall, who soon officially called off the tour.
Hearing "Woman" for the first time made me hopeful for where Marshall is now in her life and career as a musician. Any new Cat Power music is exciting for me, but these first two releases sound defiant, and also as happy as a Cat Power song can sound. Most noticeably, she sings about finally feeling free:
"The doctor said I was better than ever
Man, you should have seen me
Doctor said I was not my past
He said I was finally free"
I'm immediately reminded of 2003 album You Are Free, in which the idea of "freedom" comes up particularly in the songs "Free" and "Maybe Not." Specifically, she sings on "Maybe Not,"
"We all do what we can
So we can do just one more thing
We won't have a thing
So we've got nothing to lose
We can all be free
Maybe not with words
Maybe not with a look
But with your mind."
These words, now fifteen years old, sound like a person in search of freedom. "We can all be free" does not mean that we are actually free, yet. The lyrics, instead, feel like they describe a journey, with a destination still a ways off.
Yet in 2018, Cat Power returns, a wanderer (who's been wandering), to announce that she actually, finally, is free, even providing a health professional's affirmative opinion. To me, a mentally ill person, these lines feel a little tongue in cheek, as people don't often take physically and/or mentally ill people seriously without an official doctor's diagnosis, and even then... it's still hard to navigate. Perhaps Marshall addresses this, too, in the verse:
"A cage is like a weapon, a tool for me
You think I'm like the other ones
Well, my cage is a weapon, it's perfect for me
It's the one suit they seem to not see"
The image of a cage doesn't inspire thoughts of freedom, so it's confusing to hear Marshall call it "a tool," a "weapon," and a "suit." Maybe her cage represents a struggle that once felt insurmountable, but that she is now able to work through. There is something so satisfying about the lines "My cage is a weapon, it's perfect for me/It's the one suit they seem not to see." Perhaps the narrator isn't actually in this cage at all, but it's where a person can trap their demons. Or, if the narrator is in the cage, she's saying that the limits anyone wants to place on her don't matter anymore. You try to put her in a cage? She will create something anyways.
The official music video is included below, and is stunning. Please watch it and leave any thoughts you have in my comments section.