Cat Power - Wanderer
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Cat Power's Chan Marshall releases albums so infrequently that when they arrive, they're an event -- and the six years between Sun and Wanderer were certainly eventful for her. The day Sun was released, Marshall nearly died; eventually, she was diagnosed with an immune disorder that hindered her ability to tour in support of the album. She then discovered she was pregnant with the son she gave birth to in 2015, and creative differences with her longtime label Matador led her to release Wanderer on Domino Records. These are the kind of life-changing events that, with any luck, make a person stronger. If Wanderer is anything to go by, Marshall must be unstoppable. She packs the enormity of her experiences into songs that are fearless in their starkness, and a far cry from Sun's sleek electro-rock. This time, Marshall focuses her production and arrangements on her voice, which has become the instrument her songs have always needed. A little raspier than before and as remarkably emotive as always, it's so full of living that no flashy accompaniment is needed on songs such as the title track. One of the album's briefest and most beautiful moments, "Wanderer's" heart-melting harmonies grace a song that could be an eternal lament handed down for generations. Throughout the album, Marshall feels completely in command of the folk, blues, and soul that have lurked around the margins of her music since the beginning and made up the heart of The Greatest. Even as she says goodbye on almost every track, from "Me Voy"'s sultry regret to the serenely devastating "Horizon," Wanderer returns to sounds that are in her blood. She subtly modernizes these traditions while tapping into their timeless power: "Black" is another in her series of songs about friends who have died, and the way Marshall contrasts folk- and blues-based mythologizing with a very modern streak of survivor's guilt makes it one of her most spellbinding. "Robbin Hood," with its vicious cycle of literal and spiritual theft, could have been written in the shadow of the Great Depression or the Great Recession. Conversely, Marshall also incorporates 2010s touches in ways that sound classic and, above all, genuine. On "Woman," she and Lana Del Rey bid a liberating goodbye to others' expectations, their voices combining in an evocation of the spirit of womanhood (although Marshall's confession "The doctor said I was not my past/He said I was finally free" is utterly, poignantly personal). Similarly, she hones Rihanna's "Stay" -- already an unusually naked and free-flowing pop ballad -- to its most soul-baring parts, and its spine-tingling beauty is another testament to the strength it takes to be so vulnerable. As tender as it is uncompromising, Wanderer is exactly the album Marshall needed to make at this point in her career and life. It's some of her most essential music, in both senses of the word.