Everybody needs to stop complaining about Chan Marshall. If I hear another person talk about how she has smoothed over the rough edges that made her so great and eradicated all the warts-and-all charm from her repertoire, I’m going to spit.
Just a year ago, after releasing the strongest album by far of her career, Ms. Marshall, or Cat Power as she’s known, cancelled a tour due to a breakdown. Plenty reacted with smug I-coulda-called-it satisfaction given her reputation for stagefright and worse. Then, a few months later, Ms. Marshall emerged stronger, leaner, and meaner than ever, and has since been treating audiences (ever larger, ever more thrilled audiences) to some of the best performances of her life. One review of her new album actually praised her former “paranoid-but-pretty” style in contrast to the strength and poise she now exhibits. You’d think people wanted this woman dead.
Why is it so hard to accept this particular female artist as past the point of being a tragic genius (that “tragic” always takes away more than it adds to the other term) and into the phase of her life and career where we can simply call her a genius?
Most stories about Ms. Marshall begin by relating her troubled past, with nods to alcohol or heroin or mood swings or antidepressants. Look, now I’ve gone and done it too. Critics and fans alike seem to adore Ms. Marshall’s old meltdowns, the era of half-sung songs, the bangs-over-the-eyes terror that made seeing a Cat Power show feel something like what it must be to play a Cat Power show. How many male artists are praised for such inadequacies? But being desperately unhappy, cripplingly neurotic, and woefully addled, especially as a woman, is thought to add a stamp of authenticity. It doesn’t. It adds to our experience as members of a culture where the tragedy outweighs the artistry in the long run. Just look at Janis Joplin. Just look at Billie Holiday.
Chan Marshall is looking at both of them too, and she’s saying something by singing their songs on her latest album, Jukebox. This is an answer album of sorts to her now-legendary The Covers Record, the 2000 collection of reinterpretations that largely propelled her out of a mail-order indie ghetto and into the medium-star status from which she continues to rise. Ms. Marshall is also looking to artists like Nancy Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, the Rolling Stones, and all the thousands of other great karaoke acts of the 20th century, artists who understand that the songs can stand alone, provided you’ve got something to say through them. That great myth of the nobility and naturalness of the singer who writes, sings, and plays his or her own songs is one of the more pervasively misleading tropes of the last forty years. Cat Power smashed it on her stellar The Covers Album in 2000, and after a string of increasingly extraordinary albums she’s returned for more attempts at taking great songs and reinterpreting, rearranging, deciphering and reciphering the well-known as well as the marginal.
We enter the album with “New York, New York,” stripped of its title’s redundancy, and also of the stamp of Frank Sinatra (another great cover artist). Instead of Sinatra’s stratospheric postivism, we have a shuffling, organ-fueled love song (the final “It’s up to you… New York” sounds like a lover’s ultimatum rather than a request for coronation). Next up is a Hank Williams classic made into “Ramblin’ (Wo)man,” and Ms. Marshall essentially recasts the chugging paean to rootlessness into a louche, vulnerable assertion of the regret and pain of moving on.
Ms. Marshall is backed here by the Dirty Delta Blues, comprised of drummer Jim White (Dirty Three), guitarist Judah Bauer (Jon Spencer Blues Explosion), keyboardist Gregg Foreman (Delta 72) and bassist Eric Paparozzi (Lizard Music). It’s a departure, to be sure, from the Hi Records rhythm section she played and toured with for her last album, The Greatest, but the younger blood keeps nearly as steady a hand, inserting subtlety where you might expect showboating. It’s a Cat Power album, and perhaps Ms. Marshall’s greatest strength is the ability to gather such stunning backers who refuse to upstage her, even when her voice, which can be so throaty and forceful, suddenly goes fragile, and her dynamism is revealed.
Perhaps as though to fully stymie her detractors, Cat Power covers herself on this album, making stirring work of her own “Metal Heart,” from 1998’s Moon Pix. Ms. Marshall lifts the song from its original, somewhat basic folk plaint into something altogether tougher, more emotional aching (and that’s saying something, as she’s made a career of being affecting in just this way). She sings lines like “You will be changed,” with such strength that little of the original’s uncertainty remains. It’s been made anthemic.
She brings a more quiet intensity to the Highwaymen’s “Silver Stallion,” a high lonesome song if ever there was one, here done with a distant slide guitar and slight backing vocals the only embellishment on her tinny, confident acoustic. “Aretha, Sing One For Me” is the most reminiscent of Ms. Marshall’s shuffling, organ-laden work with the Memphis Rhythm Band. James Brown’s “Lost Someone,” mines a similar reverence for the depths of the soul tradition. Jessie Mae Hemphill’s “Lord Help The Poor & Needy” is kept spare, a reminder of older Cat Power albums, but in place of a wavering voicing, suddenly dropping out, there’s a solid surety throughout, appropriate for the gospel-blues original.
But reverence gets a bigger show when Bob Dylan appears. Cat Power’s version of “I Believe in You,” (from 1979’s almost never listened-to Slow Train Coming), takes Mr. Dylan’s declaration of Christian faith and makes it about her own devotion to Bob. For Mr. Dylan, being born again meant suffering before redemption, and his testament of faith is wrapped up in persecution. Ms. Marshall grabs hold of this submerged fear and teases it back into the song, at the same time making it not about trials before god, but trials before her own expectations, which is what heroes are there for anyways.
The follow-up, an original titled “Song to Bobby,” pulls from that cover, detailing a narrative of Ms. Marshall’s intense hero-worship of Mr. Dylan and finally of their meeting, all over a gorgeous and sweet piano tune that could have come off New Morning: “Can I finally tell you to be my man?”
The album ends with a trio of tunes that I alluded to earlier, and which I believe tell a powerful chapter in the evolving story of Cat Power. All those old fuckups. All the powerlessness Ms. Marshall evinced in front of audiences through the years, was she herself trying to satisfy some greater mythology of what it takes to sing the blues right? Could she be as great as the greats without being like them? In particular, one thinks of forbears Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday (and one wonders how much Joplin wanted to emulate Holiday too). We want the women who sing the saddest songs best to fill the air with preternatural grace and eloquence, and we somewhere became convinced that they ought to be truly broken and troubled to do so. And so we have two absolutely heartbreaking tunes, “Don’t Explain,” and “Woman Left Lonely,” sung with respectful reserve, doing justice to the original singers yet not trying to outperform them. Then we come to the final song, a song about the possibility of destruction by a woman who never destroyed herself, Joni Mitchell. “Blue” is sung above a wavering, echoing, organ and a woozy piano, and it is magnificent, so expertly detached from its original and repurposed as a smoky, ruminative offering, a love song that doesn’t have to embrace the abyss, that comes to its end with strength, savvy, and so much grace. That’s a good thing, people.