Comparing Cat Power’s new album to the fertile but featureless landscape of East Anglia might seem odd but there is something eerily beautiful, but desolate, about both.
Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, has been carving her indie niche for twenty years. In the 1990s her breathy double-tracked voice was America’s answer to our own Beth Orton and is now the template for pretty well every one of the current crop of earnest indie singer/songwriters, of both sexes. After a recording hiatus of five years (during which she became a mother and battled a debilitating medical condition) she has reappeared with a new album Wanderer, a collection of songs that she says have been assembled ‘over a few years’.
Wanderer is being promoted as a tribute to the wandering blues and folk singers of yesteryear. While these influences are not named, one imagines she is referring to the likes of Robert Johnson and Woody Guthrie. Appropriately then, Wanderer is written, performed and produced entirely by Marshall, with the assistance of ‘some longtime friends and compatriots’.
The album opens (and closes) pleasantly enough, with the title track, an ethereal acappella number in the style of Fleet Foxes. This is followed by a series of sparse slow-tempo songs, most featuring just a guitar or a piano. The stripped-down nature of the album may be true to the album’s stated motives but the songs lack the sort of melodic immediacy or lyrical clarity that her wandering predecessors possessed. It’s hard to imagine Marshall hopping off a freight train and busking these songs on a street corner to earn enough to buy a crust of bread. Certainly, none of these songs would convince you to drop a dollar in her hat and walk off with spring in your step, whilst whistling the chorus. These songs are beautiful in the moment of hearing, but instantly forgotten.
The exception to this spartan collection might be the first single, Woman. The bankable presence of her friend, the far better known Lana del Rey, perhaps explains the fuller and more radio-friendly production on this song. As a result, the chorus is just about memorable. But, in the same way that the Isle of Ely is the highpoint of the East Anglia’s Fenlands, Woman is a strangely low key and forgettable highpoint in an already sparse soundscape.
Wanderer is out on 5th October 2018 via Domino Records.