A) I feel like I’ve already raved quite a bit about Cat Power on this site, and b) I feel like I rave too much in general. So how should I write about a record I already love but I’m self-conscious about raving about?
I emailed Jake Brown, my editor, that I was having trouble writing this review because I feel foolish (come along, fool) to rave about Cat Power one more time. I wish I was Lester Bangs, I said, and he said, “Make a lot of coffee and type non-stop until you have 3,000 words.” So I am. This is it.
What can I say? I’ve loved it since I held it in my hands. I love the cover art, I love the photo of Chan running on the inside sleeve, I love the detached lyric sheet and the recycled-cardboard cd case and the airy greenness of the whole physical presentation. Chan’s gentle spirit seems to run through all of that. The photos show people outside, in the air, being near the water, running through a field, reading in the sun. These are the human, human, human things that are so easy to not be able to have. But they’re what we have to lean on. Oh, I also love the colors of the letters that spell “You Are Free.” They’re light and airy. It feels so opened up compared to the dark, uncommunicative cover art of Moon Pix. My mother looked at Moon Pix and asked, “Is that a boy or a girl?” Though I was surprised, because I thought Chan looked very girl-like on Moon Pix, I realize the theme of being a boy or girl has always run through her music. Remember that line from What Would the Community Think, “There will be no more beautiful dresses”? Remember the crushed red dress pasted in the cover art of the Covers Record? She’s working her way toward a full sense of herself as a woman. It’s not all she sings about, but it’s there, a steady hum. On You Are Free you sense she’s gotten there. Why? Because it’s not a record about heartbreak? Not just that. It’s not a self-focused record. It actually makes quite a few pleas to the world to come to its senses.
Jake said to keep typing, not to stop for more than a second. I wish I was brighter, I wish I didn’t have this nose. That’s from a Lou Reed song. I was thinking while I was out walking in the snow that if someone, like say the singer from Creed, sang “I’m Set Free” you wouldn’t care, but if someone like Lou Reed or Chan Marshall sings it, you do care because you’ve heard their struggle through their work. (Actually, when Lou sang it he was so young he hadn’t struggled that much, unless you count the hospitalization and shock treatment he went through because his parents didn’t want him to be gay, which I do.)
This is what I want to say about Chan. She’s so damned musical that even when she sings a painfully plain and boring song, there can be moments of musical nuance that are exquisite. And really, there are a few dull songs on You Are Free, but there are also gems and for me, their charm outweighs any slackness. I think that’s standard for her records. Even Moon Pix, rightly described as a masterpiece, had the core of its brilliance in songs 2-5, and fell into a different mood once she hit “Big Monster Lover.” The mood of You Are Free is somewhat bipolar. There are the moody, dark songs and then there are much brighter songs that seem to be more about being free. Then there are the plaintive songs with the charming choruses. Like any good album, each song has possessed me one by one since I bought it. The songs play in your head and you hear Chan’s voice with its unique, round sound, sometimes yelling a line like “tryin to forget.” It’s so great.
Keep typing. I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours. Last night a boy visited me and we drank wine and sang Bob Dylan and played guitars. I played some lead on my Fender Squire. He played really good acoustic on my blue Yamaha. I started just requesting stuff and he played the Kinks for me, he played a lot of Elvis Costello, and we sang “Oliver’s Army” so loudly I wondered if my neighbors were annoyed. We tried “Accidents May Happen,” but it’s so hard, with all those modulations. It was so much fun to play and sing with someone. It was like being set free. Then we went out to a bar and had one of those “Maybe the other night was a mistake—I don’t really know you—I don’t know about the age difference” conversations and I got too drunk and it was really not fun anymore.
I was horribly hungover today and I tried all day to gather my thoughts and write my review of You Are Free. I started out by quoting the Village Voice—they said something so great about the record: “Typically brilliant, seemingly nonchalant.” Perfect! They nailed it! I worship and revere such insightful verbiage! But that’s what’s wrong with me, I revere things too much. That’s the very reason I felt stupid trying to write this review. How could I start with a quote from somebody fucking else? But so then I couldn’t think of a good opener. “This performer has delivered something markedly more upbeat”—agggh! So wooden, so trying-to-sound-important! I loathe that kind of writing. So I went to get my copy of Lester Bangs. Conveniently, I was fired yesterday so I had the whole day with just my hangover to keep me company. Though I couldn’t ignore the meltdown my life seems to be in, and I stared for a long time at the picture of Lester Bangs, thinking, ‘He isn’t so bad looking, it wouldn’t have been that bad to kiss him. Why did he die? Did he really never get laid, like he said? Was he just so lonely that he died?’ Later while I was walking in the snow these thoughts came back to me and they scared me terribly. I was afraid I’d had so much to drink last night, smoked so many cigarettes and was such a lonely fuck-up that I’d suddenly drop dead like Lester Bangs. But I’ve noticed that hangovers increase my generally high anxiety to a bizarre and surreal level. I think I see crawling things and rats everywhere, I literally may have some kind of DT’s. And so then I’m wondering, do I really have to quit drinking? Me? Someone who loves wine so, so much? Me without liquor is like pepper without salt, I thought, it’s like A without B. It just can’t happen. But then I thought, yes, it can and it has to. Because you are a freaking wreck. It’s true, I literally felt like I was still drunk out there. Everything felt unreal and I had trouble keeping my balance.
Heavens, is this a record review? No, it’s a record of self-immolation! But it’s relevant! Why? There is no way it’s relevant. Isn’t Chan kind of—no, she’s not. Not anymore. She’s fine. You’re a mess. You love her because she’s been there, a little. Not the same way. But she’s been freaked out and scared and nuts, like you. She has. But now she’s more okay. And that’s good, and it’s hopeful, too. And you need to pay attention to things that are hopeful.
Oh, back to when I said the mood of the album was a bit bipolar. That’s perhaps not a good—but I think what I mean is that the songs don’t seem to lead into or out of each other in a unity. It doesn’t bother me so much as just startle me a bit, the way Bob Dylan’s Biograph did, when they put “You’re Gonna Have to Serve Somebody” right after “Forever Young”. She starts with a song—and I’m gonna use this word a lot—that’s very charming, about some musician who she defends for having a tantrum onstage. Her silky voice is calm, and the piano accompaniment is a little heavy, but it’s okay. I’d rather hear this song with guitar, for some reason. But the song itself is really good. “I don’t blame you” is the chorus. This is something I’ve always loved about Chan, is the kind heart that comes through her music. “What a cruel trick you thought you had to play,” she sings compassionately. I wonder if this song is about Kurt Cobain. In any case, it’s about the pressures of performing, a subject close to her heart. There’s a certain monotony to her piano playing but it doesn’t wreck this song for me in the least. The mood changes sharply with “Free.” Okay, some musicology, just try: There is a sharply strummed chord/bass/beat, and she wails over it and there might only be one chord to the whole song. Chan seems fascinated by very simple arrangements, and that is sometimes genius. It works really well on “Free.” This song reminds me of the African style of singing over a simple repeated beat, with few chord changes. The song invites you to dance and you do. It’s like an answer to Bill Callahan’s “No Dancing” on “Knock Knock”—a record supposedly about his relationship with Marshall. “No dancing, no dancing, no dancing, not while your wires are showing,” he sang there, but Marshall’s response is serene: “It’s okay if you can’t stand to see her dance.” The song asks you to sit up and take part and be in love when you sing your song. It’s great, it’s really exuberant. It’s an excellent get-ready-to-go-out song.
But “Good Woman” takes us right back into mournful territory. I love this song, but I think she should have put it somewhere else. It also seems produced with a slightly heavy hand—it’s best with a simple solo guitar, the way she played it on a live recording from Australia. But it’s a gorgeous song. It’s just very sad. “I’d be lying if I said I don’t love you no more.” I can’t believe this song is an original. It feels so perfectly channeled from the rockbed of American traditional music, straight out of the heart of the south, that it’s eerie to me. Just as when she covers “Werewolf” by Michael Hurley, she makes something spooky out of it, distributing the syllables in a playful yet haunting way so you’re both charmed and scared. Honestly, isn’t there something a little uncanny, meaning literally haunting and it makes you both lonesome and fascinated, about the way she sings? How long do I have to say this before someone agrees with me? I feel all the haunted singers of our land are channeled through her sense of melody and rhythm. Hank Williams is in there, and Bessie Smith, and Billie Holliday and Blind Lemon Jefferson. You hear the delta in her cadences. I do anyway, and I’ve never been near the delta. But it’s there, it’s in there. Blues. Blues and country. And rock. And world beat!
For me, in some ways, the record starts with track 4, since it feels like that’s where she really kicks into her new mood. It’s a “yeller” song by which I mean, she yells on it, and—I’ve made this comparison before—sounds like blues hollerer Wynonie Harris. I love this element in her singing and could use more of it on the album, but she is free to do exactly as she wants—it’s her party and she’ll yell if she wants to. The other notable rocker is of course “He War,” a song everyone on the Web is talking about. It is good, and it appears to either be about our President or perhaps male animus in general. It’s the most explicitly political song, though there are several others that touch on the world situation. In the delicately beautiful “Maybe Not,” she sings “There’s a dream that I see / I pray it can be / across this land, shake this land… Don’t kill it, it’s free.” It’s one of her 2/4, sounds-like-it-was-lifted-from-an-American-folksong-book numbers. Lilting and pretty. Oh! I wish I could describe music better! I get into a kind of spasm, trying, and quickly assuming it’s hopeless, I just get out of there, leaving little explanation for my heated tone. Fuck! How will I build a career this way? How?
The record has a great 1-2-3-4 punch in songs “Speak For Me,” “Werewolf,” “Fool,” and “He War.” “He War” is strong and rocky and speaking of Dylan, I hear him in there, satirizing our leaders, lending his voice to criticism of our country. Such as, “With God on Our Side.” But good as “He War” is, the musical highlight of this record is “Werewolf”—a staggeringly beautiful arrangement, with haunting strings, and Chan’s amazing phrasing (ignore that rhyme just keep going) giving it a powerful charm. It’s followed by the equally charming “Fool.” With typically oblique lyrics, the song appears to be about American imperialism again, and also rootlessness. But also mortality. Anyway, it has the best chorus in ages: “Come along, fool—a direct hit of the senses, you’re disconnected…” Swingy. Lilting. Wonderful.
God, you have got to expand your vocabulary if you want to write about music—you can’t just use the same words over and over. Then if you drop dead in the snow no one will even notice! Swingy, lilting—come on, think of other words! Beautiful, gorgeous, haunting, lovely. Those are the words I just keep thinking of. I can’t do any better!
One reviewer mentioned the song “Baby Doll” as perhaps being about Chan herself—is she singing to herself when she sings “Black, black, black is all you see”? I don’t think so. If you live in New York you see the kind of kids she’s talking about—scenesters, wearing mostly black, “red fire is what you breathe”—smoking. “Don’t you want to be clean?” she asks. Yes, yes, we do, we’re just weak. Me. I’m weak. But I want to follow you, emulate you.
Good god! Now you’re over-identifying in a way that’s just plain embarrassing. It’s just sad to reveal all this—but what does it matter? No one reads the Web anyway. Ha! That’s not true, I know, Jake. But not very many people do. No one ever says, “Oh I saw your piece on Glorious Noise.” Strangers comment, which I like. So why not open my veins for them?
The record is a comfort, it’s full of joy, it’s clean, alive, exuberant. Okay, there are dead spots. “Names” is very dull. Also I don’t love “Shaking Paper.” But the great songs and charming moments and musicality and channeling of the American heart are all what make this record great, to me.