As I try to write this article, I can’t help but wonder why it’s snowing on the first day of April. Only days ago Old Campus was bathed in sun, and by the time this is read it probably will be once more. But the weather isn’t the only thing that seems a little wrong with our world these days, what with freedom fries, Johnny Cash’s impending death and so much pure evil on the loose. Nobody seems to have an answer to all of our woes, however, outside of blind faith in or scorn of poor George W. Nobody, that is, except for Cat Power.
The 31-year-old singer-songwriter, whose real name is Chan (pronounced Shawn) Marshall, seems to bear the entire world’s pain and confusion on her singer-songwriter shoulders. Her music has always been mellow as a result, and You Are Free is no exception; but unlike records like Beck’s Sea Change and her own earlier Moon Pix, the album avoids homogeneity while maintaining its ambience. Each song sounds different even though they are almost all built around Marshall’s smoky voice accompanied by a softly strummed guitar or simple piano riff.
When her songs rise above this basic formula, Cat Power is at her best. A drum machine gives “Free” a likable, almost New Wave sound, and Dave Grohl’s percussion adds so much energy to both “Speak For Me” and “He War” that Marshall’s voice suddenly becomes as passionate as Bjork’s. Her usually quiet, almost breathy voice is contrasted with Eddie Vedder’s baritone on the album’s last tune, “Evolution.” You’d have to make a conscious effort not to be moved by the song’s three-note piano riff, which floats along like a ghost under their quiet harmony. Simple string arrangements make “Good Woman” and “Werewolf” into perhaps the saddest songs on the same album since Tom Waits’ “Saving All My Love for You” and “Ruby’s Arms.”
Perhaps the only other male singer-songwriter besides Tom Waits that Marshall could be fairly compared to is Leonard Cohen. Both seem to effortlessly capture the sadness of a rainy night (or snowy April day) in their songs, but more specifically, both have equally intense love and hatred for the opposite sex. In fact, to complete the wondrous metaphor I began at the beginning of the review, Cat Power seems to have both love and hate for our mixed-up world. What she apparently has pure hatred for, however, is music reviewers, so I’ll stop with the fanciness: You Are Free is a brooding masterpiece.