Search This Blog

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Cat Power: Wanderer


1) Wanderer; 2) In Your Face; 3) You Get; 4) Woman; 5) Horizon; 6) Stay; 7) Black; 8) Robbin Hood; 9) Nothing Really Matters; 10) Me Voy; 11) Wanderer / Exit.

General verdict: Sympathetic, but annoyingly vague and melodically unmemorable, confessions of an innovative-cum-traditional singer-songwriter.

The six-year interval between Sun and Wanderer had to do with Marshallʼs family matters (childbirth) and health issues (she was diagnosed with hereditary angioedema, a disease almost as nasty as it is unpronounceable), but also with a conflict between her and her old label, Matador Records. Allegedly, as she tells the story herself, the label was displeased about her not being able or willing to churn out «hits» — to the point where, at one time, she was presented with Adeleʼs 25 and told that this is how you make a record nowadays, or something like that. In other words, same old story, big frickinʼ surprise, but the odd thing is that Matador had always been an indie label by definition, and even if some of their acts did end up with Billboard hits from time to time, it is unclear why they should have subjected Cat Power or anybody else to this old school «give-me-hits-or-get-dropped» treatment.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about the situation (which eventually led to Marshall leaving the label) is that Wanderer displays no intentional aversion to commercial elements. For one thing, Cat Power even covers a Rihanna song — granted, ʽStayʼ was possibly the most old-fashioned of all Rihannaʼs hits, but still, a Rihanna song is a Rihanna song. For another, ʽWomanʼ is a duet with none other than Lana Del Rey, she of the big sultry lips and the fake Spanish aristocracy heritage: kindred spirit or not, it is clear that people these days are much more likely to hear of Lana than of Chan, and that Lanaʼs presence of the record is pretty much the only chance for Marshall to attract new audiences these days.

However, the essence of Wanderer is not in its alleged commercialism masquerading as anti-commercialism (especially since the lines between the two are so awfully blurred these days anyway), but in its traditionalism. As usual, she plays almost everything herself, but this time she completely eschews electronics, modern beats, and any sort of synthetic gloss, mainly sticking to acoustic guitar and piano — the classic singer-songwriter album, going all the way back to Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, with echoes of Joan Baez in the distance (the purely conventional medieval folk ballad form of the title track would be right up Joanʼs alley). So, clearly, this is meant to be more of an intense personal experience than an exploration of forms and textures. Which is quite understandable in light of everything that happened with Chan over the previous six years. She wishes to share, and we are given a chance to empathize.

Unfortunately, there is not all that much on the album beyond its reasonably well crafted call to empathy that would deserve detailed comment. If your listening quotas on singer-songwriter stuff have already been filled up, you might find yourself thinking something like I do at the beginning of ʽHorizonʼ: "Well, she starts off by borrowing the chords to Aimee Mannʼs ʽWise Upʼ... and now she goes ʽmotheeeeeeeeer...ʼ ʽfatheeeeeeer....ʼ just like John Lennon on ʽMotherʼ... and this chord change is sort of Pink Floydish...". If these sorts of synthesis resulted in something truly fresh and startling, thatʼd be one thing; however, the big textural difference is that all the songs on the album are quiet, smooth, and carefully polished around all the sharp edges so you do not hurt your feelings too much — a little surprising, Iʼd say, for an artist who prides herself on being independent and honest, but then again, her honesty is never in doubt here, only her ability to provoke a strong emotional response in the listener.

The acclaimed duet with Lana, unflinchingly named ʽWomanʼ, is another good example of how this record succeeds in making an artistic statement, but does not succeed in making it an exciting or memorable statement. The lyrics are vague and gauzy, lightly and nonchalantly accusing somebody of something; the chords are flimsy and generic, wasting a perfectly good Leslie pedal in the process (check out Aimee Mannʼs ʽLost In Spaceʼ for a good example of how a thing like that is not wasted in a singer-songwriter context); the climactic surge in energy is a Chan-Lana mantra consisting of nothing but the word "woman" repeated so many times youʼd think there was an inexhaustible store of mana in it or something... well, maybe there is, but if I want a real woman to rock my boat in this manner, I will go to Stevie Nicks instead (any chosen ten seconds of the coda to ʽRhiannonʼ or ʽGold Dust Womanʼ have more tension to them than the entirety of this dull mantra). It is not cringeworthy bad — it is simply a song that will pass me by like millions of them; the only bad thing about it is that it is more pretentious than many others, yet wastes its pretense with poor lyrics, monotonous vocal deliveries, and unimaginative chords.

The entire album is like that: the mood never changes once from song to song, the arrangements never stray to far away from the piano / acoustic guitar routine, and the lyrics always run this weird line between desperately wanting to fling out some bitter truth and taking good care not to offend anybody and to avoid unambiguous interpretation. The underlying artistic motif of being unable to settle down and seemingly afflicted with a Wandering Jew-like curse does recur fairly explicitly, over and over again, from the two versions of the title track to the gypsy balladeering of ʽMe Voyʼ, but everything is nostalgically rooted in the melancholic spirit of the late Nineties, where most of these songs truly belong. I do like bits and pieces — the gritty sarcasm of the "donʼt you forget it, donʼt you dare forget it" chorus of ʽIn Your Faceʼ, the somnambulant sorrow of the repetitive "you will get, you will get what you want" chorus of ʽYou Getʼ, etc. — but on the whole, this is not a successful demonstration of Chan Marshallʼs unique and inspirational artistry. Granted, she was never graced with genius even at her best, but on albums like these, where it is all about soul and spirit rather than bells and whistles, the shortcomings stare you in the face much more brightly. 

1 comment:

  1. " is unclear why they should have subjected Cat Power or anybody else to this old school «give-me-hits-or-get-dropped» treatment."

    That's a diplomatic statement. I'm not so generous when it comes to pissed-off musicians making sub-believable accusations about former labels. Matador? Adele? Right.

    I can imagine an indie label being insensitive to underproducing musicians (even ones with good excuses), but invoking Adele is just mean -- like something Anton Newcombe would say, only he'd move on, hell or highwater, and continue to make a shit-ton of noncommercial records on his own.