It's been three years since I interviewed Chan Marshall. At the time, she replied, "I'd say next Valentine's Day, maybe," in response to my question about when her next release would be out. You Are Free
benefits from the prolonged absence. Recorded with an ear for detail but guided by a loose hand, this is the most open, welcoming Cat Power album yet, due largely to Marshall and Adam Kasper's production. You Are Free
has the Cat Power staples -- the hypnotic, repetitive guitar lines and piano figures, Marshall's sublime, conversational voice and unsettled love songs -- but the tone is different. Marshall's last album, 2000's The Covers Record
, was mostly an album of love songs, but love songs run through with a dark, deep melancholy. It is a beautiful record, not just because of its content, but the way the performance lulls the listener into a funk. To follow up with more of the same, however, would have been a disappointment. Another album of that material would have weighed too heavily on the ear. If The Covers Record
is the album you play on a bitter, early Sunday morning, then You Are Free
is the album you play on Monday when the sun is breaking through the cloud cover.
Opening with a two-song point-and-counterpoint series, Marshall presents the view from both sides of a concert. "I Don't Blame You" finds an artist on stage, run through with doubt, boredom and anger at her audience. The musician is mad at the intrusion the audience creates in her life, acting as if they know her based on her songs. "Free" is the audience's reply: they just want to watch, dance and have fun. The two songs exemplify what Marshall and Kasper have done here, production-wise: Marshall's voice layered in a multi tracked chorus or singing response to herself; simple layers of guitar, piano and drums; a relaxed, clear, almost live-performance sound. Most importantly, the songs, especially "Free", have an underlying mirth previously absent in Marshall's music. "Free", "He War" and "Speak for Me", among others, are almost pop.
"Good Woman", the disc's third track, is an old song for anyone who has seen Marshall live in the past few years (indeed, several of these songs are longtime members of her concert set list). It is a heartrending song. Think of Dolly Parton as a songwriter, with songs like "Jolene" and "Down from Dover"; that is the content and feeling of "Good Woman". Performed live, it was just Marshall and her guitar. The version presented here is a breathtaking reworking. Still delivered in a tone to match the content, the song has been fleshed out with strings, a chorus of children and a male vocal (an almost unrecognizable Eddie Vedder, who also sings on "Evolution") that echoes Marshall in the last verse.
Album midpoint "He War" is the best example of You Are Free's uniqueness within the Cat Power canon. "He War" could easily be a song from What Would the Community Think, but the performance and feeling is different. Opening with a short piano line followed by a guitar response, a militant drum beat moves in and gets the song going. It is a good, Cat Power-style rave up, but frankly, "He War" and You Are Free as a whole are not as manic or angry as past releases. That's not to say that there is no passion in the songs, as there is deep emotion on display here, but the disc is not urgent and fretful.
"Shaking Paper" is utterly hypnotic. Dave Grohl, who plays drums through out the album, creates a beautiful, shuffling brush-work beat. Marshall sings in a low voice that rises to a peak on the line "a good thing is coming". The two play around each other, doubling back over vocal lines and guitar feedback. The pacing is just right, never hurried. My fourth time through the album, I couldn't help but loop this song for several plays.
You Are Free closes with a ditty, a reworked folk number and a dirge. The ditty, "Half of You", is a short love song with a smart set of lyrics; it sounds like Mazzy Star woke up in a mood for country and American standards. "Keep on Running" is half Chan Marshall and half John Lee Hooker. Cribbing lines from Hooker's "Crawlin' Black Spider", Marshall creates a new song with his and her words, presenting the woman's reply to the covetous man in Hooker's song. And finally, "Evolution" is a Whitmanesque list poem set to a short solo piano line. Marshall and Vedder don't so much duet as sing the same lines slightly out of sync. It's not remarkable for what it is saying, but for how it's said: Marshall and Kasper's production balances Marshall's somewhat-yearning voice against a deep, low Vedder singing/talking. The piano and the two voices are working against each other, yet still coming together. It's a downbeat ending to a album full of upticks, but it works well.
Like many music fans, I think that some artists don't release albums quickly enough -- that the wait between releases is unduly long. However, You Are Free, coming three years after The Covers Record and five years after Marshall's last album of original material, is hitting the streets at the right time. Moon Pix and The Covers Record were unbelievable albums, beautiful, dark and sullen -- but in the years since their release, Marshall has had a chance to breathe again, to see things in a brighter light. You Are Free as an album is better for it, and as a listener, you are better off because of it.