CAT POWER: YOU ARE FREE (2003)
1) I Don't Blame You; 2) Free; 3) Good Woman; 4) Speak For Me; 5) Werewolf; 6) Fool; 7) He War; 8) Shaking Paper; 9) Babydoll; 10) Maybe Not; 11) Names; 12) Half Of You; 13) Keep On Runnin'; 14) Evolution.
The album sleeve, frankly speaking, reads You Are Cat Power Free, and I am not sure what that means — it is not likely that the LP was ever supposed to be her last, but perhaps one should understand that figuratively, as in, «this is my first album that does not sound like quintessential Cat Power»? Because that would not be too far from the truth, or, rather, it does announce a new approach to songwriting that I, for one, could only welcome: Chan Marshall embraces the pop format, at least inasmuch as she begins to introduce recurrent hooks in her compositions.
I do not know what happened — perhaps the awfulness of The Covers Record struck the artist herself as too overtly egotistical and pointless, but it is a definite fact that You Are Free, despite the title, is the first album in Cat Power history where she agreed to let go of some of her freedom, adopting a more precise, tight-cut formula that was still true to her post-nuclear melancholic spirit, but gave her the advantage of actually planting her mood swings deep in the listener's braincells, rather than just spinning them around like fluctuating satellites. Perhaps we should be thanking Adam Kasper, the producer of Pearl Jam and Queens Of The Stone Age, for helping Chan with selecting the songs — or Dave Grohl, who is playing bass or drums on some of these songs (and no, there's no threat of turning Chan into a Foo Fighter, although that could be interesting). Anyway, whatever the reason, this is Cat Power's most musically interesting album since... well, probably since one of her past lives, when she must have been High Priestess of the Temple of Bastet and wrote depressed prayers to feline spirits.
In terms of arrangements, not much has changed: for the most part, it is still just Chan and her acoustic guitar or solitary piano. Every once in a while, she is joined by Grohl, or by some strings (master orchestrator and Beck's father David Campbell lends a hand on two tracks), or by some background vocals (including a couple of turns by Eddie Vedder), but none of that suffices to take away the impression of yet another «quiet» album. The difference is that this time around, «quiet» is complemented by «tight» and «energetic», and you can see that from the very first track, ʽI Don't Blame Youʼ — it is just as minimalistic as anything on Covers Record (five notes piano riff, yes), but somehow it is also a bit more playful, and it has got a cool transition between verse and chorus — apparently, the song is dedicated to Kurt Cobain, and while its verses sound like a stern reprimand from an overbearing psychiatrist, the chorus rushes to reassure the patient that "I don't blame you", and what do you know? it looks like she really does not. But the song does not come across as a propaganda of suicide, either: in contrast to her earlier, proverbially depressed material, ʽI Don't Blame Youʼ is just full of empathy and compassion. It's not a great song, but it's a song (rather than just a musically enhanced stream of conscious), and it is completely free of potential irritants.
Everything else is at least good, and sometimes quite inventive and at times, even funny in its own way — ʽFreeʼ, for instance, sounds like a cruelly deconstructed dance tune, maybe from the synth-pop era, only with acoustic guitar replacing synthesizer and an atmosphere of bizarre paranoidal apprehension replacing the «pseudo-original» atmosphere of cheesy romance. In addition, the line "don't fall in love with the autograph" should probably go down in history as one of the smartest and catchiest lines she's ever written. However, genre-wise, ʽFreeʼ is an exception: most of the tunes are still either bluesy or folksy in nature, and that's okay, since these genres come to her more naturally. It's just that before, she was unable to to anything particularly interesting with them — but now, with a little help from her friends...
...well, just listen to ʽGood Womanʼ: this is essentially a gospel-soul number about how "I don't want to be a bad woman / And I can't stand you to be a bad man" (I can easily see somebody of Aretha's caliber doing this), but she finds a cool combination of sounds to go along with it — distorted «grunge-folksy» guitar, David Campbell's string arrangement, and a couple of kids with ghostly effects for backing vocals. Again, no single great hook per se, but the arrangement gives the whole thing a multi-voice impression (guitar gruffness + string painfulness + kid voice ghostliness), so put a check mark next to «intrigue» at least, not to mention huge progression since those days when such a song would simply have been recorded with distorted guitar and nothing else and would have ended up as «dead boring indie schlock».
Most of the tunes that follow have one or more quirky elements — ʽSpeak For Meʼ has several Chans bouncing off each other and a tense build-up from verse to bridge to chorus (I think it's a song about confusion and chaos in the modern world, but could just as well be about indigestion, whichever matters more to you emotionally); the cover of Michael Hurley's ʽWerewolfʼ is embellished by yet another of Campbell's imaginative orchestrations, so that simple folk is turned into subtle baroque pop; ʽFoolʼ is her take on alt-country, with two vocal tracks (one normal and one falsetto) superimposed on each other in a lovely sweet way which almost completely overshadows the bitter words with which she stabs her compatriots ("it's all that we have, the USA is our daily bread / And no one is willing to share it"); ʽHe Warʼ is an odd mix of grunge, avantgarde, and maybe even hip-hop — a song that refuses to conform to any genre, while at the same time retaining an odd catchiness, not to mention the overall message that needs no lyrical confirmations, given the song's title and the year of the album's release (2003); and so on.
Amazingly, there's something good to be said about every single tune here — I still feel that the melodies are way too minimalistic and the arrangements not stupendous enough for this stuff to reach, you now, the Brian Eno level of bliss or something, but the most important thing has been achieved: You Are Free sounds like light, naturally flowing, not overcooked melancholia that can be sensually enjoyed even without understanding a single word of her lyrics. Who knows, maybe she just had to hit that 30-year boundary to reach genuine artistic maturity; in any case, now she is able to make use of just four notes and just one Eddie Vedder to bring the album to a tender, hypnotic conclusion (ʽEvolutionʼ), and it must take absolute artistic maturity to be able to put Eddie Vedder to good use, so a big thumbs up here indeed.