In 1998, Chan Marshall released Moon Pix, the fourth Cat Power album. It started with a song about a musician who couldn’t stop: “My friend sits at the drum/His magic hand feels nothing but time.” Then she released an album of covers, and now comes You Are Free. It starts with a song about a musician who couldn’t keep going: “You were swinging your guitar around/’Cause they wanted to hear that sound/That you didn’t wanna play.” It could be about Kurt Cobain, especially when she sings, “What a sad trick you thought you had to play.” There’s a stately piano line and a simple refrain, “I don’t blame you.”
Cobain’s recalcitrance echoes across You Are Free, as if Marshall is trying to understand his sad trick, trying to figure out what it means to give up hope. During the past eight years, this Georgia-born songwriter has perfected her own desolate, disjointed version of folk music. Free may be her most beautiful album, as well as her cagiest: There are gaunt rock songs and ramshackle ballads, all painted with bold, sure strokes that belie her ambivalence.
Marshall doesn’t lean into her words the way she used to, and even at its most passionate, her voice has an aching flatness that matches the lyrics. “We can all be free,” she sings, but the song is called “Maybe Not.” Eddie Vedder adds backup vocals here and there, and Dave Grohl drums on three songs, including “Shaking Paper,” where his galloping beat brings out something sinister in the chorus “A good thing’s coming.”
The album’s second-to-last song is a version of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Black Spider,” listed as “Keep on Runnin’.” She swaps his swagger for stillness — it’s yet another sad trick, but this song isn’t about giving up. Strumming a chord that never seems to change, she whispers, “Just keep crawlin’ till the day I die.”