You Are Free
here is a dramatic contrast between Chan Marshall’s recording persona and the famously shy performer who often plays concerts with her back to the audience or cancels appearances altogether. Chan’s albums as Cat Power, in contrast, are filled with self-assured, powerfully delivered lyrics and the raw emotional honesty most often associated with the most confident and accomplished of performers. That confidence in the recording studio is more apparent than ever on Chan’s sixth album, You Are Free.
Her sixth album comes three years after 2000’s The Covers Record, and a full five years after 1998’s Moon Pix, her critically acclaimed last album of original material. You’d never know it, though, from listening to You Are Free—it sounds as natural and relaxed as if she hadn’t been gone a day. If Chan felt any pressure to follow up Moon Pix or live up to the hype surrounding her new album, it certainly doesn’t show here. Instead, she turns in a polished, carefully crafted set of beautiful, intense songs that lay bare the singer’s heart as honestly and effectively as anything she’s attempted before.
On songs like the ragged, electrified “He War” and the slow-burning “Speak For Me,” Chan turns up the amps a touch and taps into her angrier emotions. The latter song builds on top of a rolling electric guitar line, then explodes into a densely arranged sea of piano, restrained drumming, and tight soloing.
Elsewhere, the arrangements are more stripped down and minimal, giving center stage to Chan’s lovely, expressive vocals. On the opener “I Don’t Blame You,” the singer is accompanied by a simple piano melody, adding more power to the accusation her voice harbors despite the song’s titular disclaimer. The melancholy “Good Woman” features full-bodied electric guitar, plaintive violins, and a distant backing chorus of overdubbed Chans joining her direct vocals, which explore a relationship teetering on the edge of breakdown. The simplicity of the arrangement—which flirts with country as well as classic rock—makes the song even more affecting.
After the album’s varied first half, which also features such gems as the bittersweet “Werewolf” (featuring some grin-inducing whimsical “doo doo doos” from Chan), You Are Free begins a slow and surprising spiral downward into the depths of depression. Whereas the record’s first half tempered the mostly downbeat lyrics with fuller arrangements and deceptively upbeat tempos, the second half strips all that way, and the resulting sense of desperation and despair is almost crippling.
The impact of sequencing the album this way is incredible; the album’s second half represents an accumulating sadness that leaves the listener an emotional wreck by the time it’s all over. “Maybe Not” and “Baby Doll” are stark ballads, the former featuring lovely piano, and the latter pairing whisper-light acoustic guitar with the vocals. But “Names” is the album’s emotional nadir, an utterly exhausting litany of despair-ridden characters, Chan’s lovely lilt seeming almost unnatural when spitting out these stories of death and depression.
After that, things can go nowhere but up, and they do, but just barely. The closing trio of simple ballads end the album on a gloomy, emotionally naked note—particularly Chan’s ghostly duet with Smog’s dour Bill Callahan on the finale, “Evolution.” With its precise, evocative explorations of emotion and character, You Are Free is one of Cat Power’s finest achievements yet. Chan Marshall’s songwriting is as strong as ever, and her performances as remarkably self-assured as they’ve always been in the absence of an audience.
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01