You Will Be Changed
Cat Power grows up
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
Sometimes, we like our musicians a little broken. We — at least some of us — want our artists, our poets, our writers and our singers a touch bruised, a little damaged, able to access something we can’t (or won’t) express creatively. The raw nerves, the shredded confidence, the cold place in the bottom of our stomachs; certain people are called on to evoke these things, to bring them to life with a simple piano melody or an untrained voice that tells a familiar tale. “After this there will be no one / After this there will be so many good ones,” Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, sang plaintively on 1996’s What Would the Community Think, a spare record that sounded like the aural representation of a wine-stained journal, sometimes ominous, sometimes stranded, sometimes beautifully awkward.
Over the years, the debates about Marshall — was the stage fright real, or just a gimmick? A little of both? Was she crazy or brilliant or, again, a little of both? — gave way to sheer admiration from critics and fans. In the mid-’90s, she was a fragile thing, crying after shows and certain of her uncertainty. Now, she’s reportedly a confident performer, a woman who told Rolling Stone recently that her latest album, Jukebox, “was my first time recording and being happy.” Happy isn’t a word we’ve associated with Marshall. Her last album, The Greatest, might have flirted with the notion, but the news around it was too often about Marshall’s stint in rehab, the stories a little tentative about the new Cat Power, a little unsure that this was going to stick.
It has stuck, this new side, and that’s apparent on Jukebox. Where on 2000’s The Covers Record, Marshall took apart “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and found a heartbreaking epic in miniature in The Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason,” on Jukebox she covers Joni Mitchell and Frank Sinatra — and, as she did last time, herself. And it’s on that cover that the Cat Power mythos shifts indelibly. We weren’t always sure, before, whether we’d get The Greatest Cat Power, the sassy, throaty-voiced one with the soul band behind her, or the broken Marshall, the one who captured the melodies of our our own loneliness and sounded like every phrase was an effort. If we can crack our own habits, break down those desires to see the bruises on the songs, we might see that this time, it’s both. “Metal Heart” was quintessential Cat Power, a ballad that seemed almost ramshackle, all lazy drums and reluctant guitars, with one wrenching line borrowed from “Amazing Grace.” Now, it’s a statement sung with strength and control, much of its fervor hidden under a musical clarity that reads, until the suddenly forceful end, like accessibility. “Better-played and better-sung,” said that Rolling Stone story. But better-played and better-sung doesn’t necessarily make it flat-out better, at least not for some of us. Not when we still need those artists who reflect our own rattled playing and imperfect harmonies, our meandering leads and tired nights. Cat Power is growing up without us.