Cat Power: He War
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
“I’m not that hot new chick? Chan wtf?”
Cat Power’s You Are Free was my favorite album of 2003. Three years and one good follow-up record later, it only sounds better and deeper; lived-in yet ever-elusive. Initial faves like opener/supposed Kurt Cobain reverie “I Don’t Blame You,” “Good Woman” (the best song Eddie Vedder’s appeared on since, what, “Do the Evolution”? Vitalogy?), “Fool,” and “Maybe Not” remain as gorgeously, disquietingly otherworldly as anything in Chan Marshall’s dense back catalog.
It’s a “career” album, to be sure, but upon closer reflection, it’s not necessarily the most representative example of Marshall’s depression-as-wallpaper aesthetic. The signature elements are all here: minor-key guitar, piano notes that register like raindrops in the dark, and, of course, that unmistakable Southern drawl, feeling your pain and then some. What’s markedly different is that Marshall is no longer playing the hapless victim, a role she’d embodied from her cover of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)” (re-tagged “Still in Love”) through her 1998 breakthrough, Moon Pix.
It’s not that Marshall’s through with her suffering, mind you, but rather that she’s come to realize that she has no one to blame but herself; on her latest album, she casts another wink in the late Nirvana frontman’s direction, flat-out confessing, “I hate myself and I want to die.” “Good Woman” is, after all, about realizing that she’s not. “Names,” draining even by Cat Power standards, is a laundry list of young lives that went to shit after she dropped out of them. “He War” is both You Are Free’s most radical departure from past form, and probably not coincidentally, the only track on the album that I was lukewarm on until recently. It’s the first time Marshall has openly played the victimizer, or at least the bitch—and it’s a modest pop move, to boot.
The quote at the top of this page is from an IM conversation conducted shortly after the release of You Are Free, and comes straight from an even bigger Cat Power fan than myself. He liked the new album, but was confused by “He War” to the point of calling it “embarrassing.” I think I agreed at the time, though my reaction was more ambivalent. The video, for starters, looked like a Hollister ad, starring the sort of brunette femme fatale who’d fit right in on a runway—a decidedly far cry from the hypnotic minimalism of the “Cross Bones Style” clip, shot during Marshall’s cute-but-androgynous Joan of Arc phase.
The song opens with a few bright piano notes, then a murky electric guitar riff kicks in. “I never meant to be the needle that broke your back,” Chan apologizes. It feels, at best, half-hearted; not phoned-in by any means, but not like she really means it either. Or maybe that’s effectively the truth: She didn’t intend for it come to this, and she knows it’s mostly her fault, but, you know, shit happens. “You were here / You were here / You were here / Don’t look back.”
Coupled with the titular lyric is the curious non-sequitur “he will kill for you.” Is she passing the guy she’s dumping off on some girlfriend, proving that her puppy dog-eyed ex is a loyal rottweiler? It almost feels like a sly jab at the head-over-heels macho romantics of a track like, say, Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U”; as in, “thanks but no thanks.” Sanity counts for a lot in Cat Power land, and maybe dude’s just not up to snuff. Maybe the desire or capacity to kill for her isn’t such a virtue, as suggested by the proceeding line: “Hide from who you can / You know you can.”
But then, after some nice guitar trills and “Hey hey hey”s (sexual or perhaps just general frustration), comes the moment referenced above, where “He War” morphs into another animal altogether. And what the fuck, indeed? This is Chan “I’ve Still Got a Flame Gun for the Cute Ones” Marshall, right? The same artist who dropped the chorus of “Satisfaction” for no better reason than that she didn’t feel like stating the obvious? Yep, and she’s “not that hot new chick”—except that she is, and she knows she’s right, even when she’s wrong.
It’s a stunning, slightly audacious touch, making for the first Cat Power song I can imagine hearing on non-college radio, Diplo’s remix of “Free” notwithstanding. Sure, as stated earlier, it’s only a modest pop move, not something as drastic as Jewel’s 0304 or Liz Phair hiring the Matrix. But the gesture registers, and it suggests that while Marshall is “onto your same old trick,” she has more than a few left up her sleeve.
By: Josh Timmermann
Published on: 2006-04-26