I don’t think it’s simply a matter of longevity that gives the new Cat Power album, Wanderer, the feel of a classic. I’m referring less to the actual quality of the release — although it’s plenty strong — than the a certain feel of wafting timelessness. It is unmistakably a product of Chan Marshall’s distinctive creative voice, carrying sonic similarities to everything she’s done previously. It also reminds me of something Joni Mitchell might have created in the late nineteen-seventies or into the eighties, not because of any soundalike qualities, but due to a kindred inner assurance. In direct refutation of the longstanding reputation Marshall has for personal and professional fragility, Wanderer is imbued with quiet, forceful confidence.
Quiet is a central part of the album’s impact. Wanderer retreats a bit from the evocative musical layering of Marshall’s last few releases, hewing closer to the striking spareness of her earliest recording efforts. “In Your Face” is built upon the foundation of a delicate piano, and “Robbin Hood” has a guitar part so sedate it seems thought rather than played. The clearest example of the effectiveness of Marshall’s restrained, refined approach is “Stay.” A cover of a ballad first recorded by Rihanna, the R&B membrane is stripped away, leaving a song that’s suddenly more tender and moving, confession overtaking performance.
None of this is meant to imply there’s no angle of playfulness to the album. Marshall still knows when to deploy the musical equivalent of an arched eyebrow. “Woman” recruits Lana Del Rey to a duet, serving as both a passing of the baton to and a statement of solidarity with the latest female performer to suffer the indignity of purposeful underestimation and meritless derision (“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”). The trickster attitude also manifests on the sly ramble “You Get” and even the airy “Nothing Really Matters,” because only Marshall could take a song with that title and give it a veneer of veiled triumph.
The most distinctive music artists, through little fault of their own, have a tendency to stay locked into the public’s collective first impression of them. Chan Marshall has been recording as Cat Power for nearly twenty-five years, and, in her mid-forties, she’s living a very different experience than the one which paralleled her career beginnings. The reticent ingenue long ago gave way to a sharp songwriter with a penchant for exploration. On Wanderer, Marshall has fully aged into the wise soul who’s always been present in the aura of her songs. Understandably, perhaps, she sounds more comfortable than ever.