Lord, I was born a rambling man… A rambler and a gambler and a sweet talkin’ ladies man… I’ve been wandering early and late, from New York City to the Golden Gate… I’m the type of guy that likes to roam around… I’m the wanderer, yeah the wanderer; I roam around, around, around, let’s go.
Musical wanderers, as traditionally imagined in the above lyrics and elsewhere, are men, troubadours following their muses, dicks, and/or dreams while trying to outrun their ghosts. Chan Marshall, aka: Cat Power, lays full claim to the title of her tenth album, Wanderer with the authority of a blueswoman who’s seen some shit, alternately conjuring trances and slapping you out of them, projecting clear-eyed, uncompromising strength on one of the most fragile-sounding sets she’s ever made.
Wanderer is truly a solo record, sparsely-arranged, largely-acoustic and haunting, and if many its tropes are timeless, it feels grounded in this particular American moment. “You feel so above/ The hunger on the streets/ With your safe and your document in its place/ Your money your gun” she sings on “In Your Face,” against a quietly-strummed guitar, a pecked-out piano melody and almost absent-minded pitter-patter percussion. It about amorality and privilege, calling out someone to own their complicity in a world that seems not to touch them. “You Get” indicts its subject with hypnotically abstracted wordplay, a dragging tempo mirroring its mandate to slow down, listen, think. Recalling Nancy Sinatra musically, Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” spiritually, the single “Woman” enlists Lana Del Rey, an unlikely collaborator who makes perfect sense in context. An atmospheric declaration of independence — presumably to an ungrateful, gaslighting lover – it’s also an anthem of solidarity from two women who have wrestled through celebrity’s mindfuck.
Elsewhere, songs address loss, letting go, and moving on. “Horizon,” with acrobatic vocals scrambled through 808s and Heartbreak-style voice processing, invokes family and separation. Marshall’s take on Rihanna’s 2012 hit “Stay” is the latest chapter in her ongoing and consistently surprising covers project (seeThe Covers Record and Jukebox, for starters). She slows the ballad to a crawl, reducing it to little more than chorus and bridge, a lone voice with hesitant piano and wisps of synths and strings.
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The most beguiling moment, though, is “Black,” as dark a song as she’s ever made, with lyrics sketching an abusive relationship and what scans as an OD. “Threw me in the bath, with the ice and a slap/ Can of coke down my throat, almost his whole hand fittin in,” she details, her composure more disturbing than histrionics, while a second, more distant Marshall voice wings in like an angel of death. Framed as a lilting strut, it’s the sound of a survivor drawing henna patterns around scars.
Recorded in Miami and L.A., there’s a Latin tinge here, most obviously on “Me Voy,” the singer harmonizing with herself like she’s in a cantina at 4AM, pledging to leave, then joining for an internal-dialog chorus to beg herself to stay. It feels lonely, true as hell, and might make you wonder why your own tortured indecision doesn’t appear so sacred -– or if, looked at in another light, maybe it does.