by Jimmy Draper
How’s that song go? Is it “I Hate Myself and Want To Die”? Or is it “I Hate Myself for Loving You”? —Chan Marshall at a recent San Francisco gig.
Claiming that Chan “Cat Power” Marshall’s records even remotely resemble feel-good music is like holding up Hope Sandoval as a prototype of Richard Simmons-style pep. Claustrophobic in their abysmal bleakness, Marshall’s minimalist, almost meditative blues-folk hymns have blurred the line between self-loathing and -loving since she debuted nearly a decade ago.
“Metal heart, you’re not worth a thing,” goes one harrowing highlight of her heretofore best effort, 1998’s Moon Pix; “the music is boring me to death,” goes another. If you were forced to perform such drear night after night, you’d probably resort to Marshall’s woman-on-the-verge stage antics too.
Then again, You Are Free, her stunning sixth album and first of original material since Moon Pix, is as unexpectedly uplifting as anything you’ll hear this year. No one’s gonna mistake these largely down-tempo paeans of self-actualization as fun, of course, but the debilitating darkness of songs like “Schizophrenia’s Weighted Me Down” is replaced with an optimism previously unthinkable on a Cat Power album. “We can all be free / Maybe not with words / Maybe not with looks / But with your mind,” Marshall promises in her drowsy, Southern drawl on “Maybe Not.” Elsewhere, she empathizes, sympathizes, soothes, seethes, urges listeners to shake their inhibitions, and vows that “a good thing is coming.”
If You Are Free is Marshall’s escape from despair’s depths, it’s also a break from her own musical convention. Produced by Adam Kasper (Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters) and featuring Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder (on the staggering, she said-he said duet “Good Woman”), the album is her most accessible, polished and eclectic work. From the round-robin pop of “Speak for Me” and the folk-inverted club song “Free” to the near-rock of the first single “He War,” Marshall’s shedding everything that’s made her indie rock’s resident depressive.
And can you blame her for tiring of the role? “Baby, black, black, black is all you see,” she sings. “Don’t you want to be free?”
See Cat Power at Magic Stick (4120 Woodward, Detroit) Tuesday, April 15, 8 p.m. Call 313-833-9700 for information.
E-mail Jimmy Draper at email@example.com.