A cover can be a disguise or a source of warmth. Or it can be someone else’s song. For Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, all definitions apply. Ask her to explain the process of choosing which songs to record on her third album of covers and she will respond with a rush of consciousness that mirrors the way the record was made.
Some of the songs evolved through live performance, sometimes as reactions to Marshall’s own compositions. She took to singing Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion” as an antidote to performing “In Your Face” (from 2018’s Wanderer) on tour, seeing it as a way of not getting pulled down by the weight of her own composition. Clearly, the line between resilience and despair is drawn in chalk, because “Bad Religion” is a confessional about a long night of the soul, with a taxi driver in the role of therapist, or at least an empathetic pair of ears. In Ocean’s version, the religious imagery is foregrounded by the arrangement. Ocean’s driver is Muslim, and the cultural awkwardness he described prompted some wayward interpretations of the lyrics. Marshall swerves this by having her cabbie say “praise the Lord” rather than “Allahu akbar”, a tweak that rewires one of the song’s oscillations between self-pity and prejudice.
Then there is “Unhate”, a remodelling of Marshall’s own song, “Hate”, from her 2006 album, The Greatest. The original is a song about suicide, and it unfurls with such world-weariness that the singer barely remembers to add the veneer of poetry. “Unhate” is less barefaced and, though it could never be mistaken for a party anthem, the tune is infused with more electricity. The treatment of Marshall’s voice adds a spectral quality. She sounds less defeated. Marshall views the song as being akin to a phone call to a friend in need, and rings off saying “no – don’t even try”. That intention colours much of her work, though the friend in need is often the singer herself.
If that sounds grim, it isn’t. Musically, The Greatest marked a musical reinvention for Cat Power. Al Green’s band offered a fresh context for Marshall’s voice, adding volume, giving strength to frailty. Marshall was revealed as an inverted soul singer. She looks in, rather than out. She goes down rather than up. She doesn’t explode. She implodes.
The sound has developed since, notably in the treatment of the voice. In Marshall’s early career, nakedness was a strength. The voice was intimate, confessional. Now, her vocals tend to arrive in a Cat-chorus of Auto-Tune, leaving the singer less alone, which offers some comfort. But Marshall’s introversion isn’t about certainty, and the competing voices – her own – sound like ambiguity, multiplied.
There is a dreamy, unconscious quality to the way Marshall inhabits a song. The Covers sessions were big on spontaneity. For the first five cuts the band got into a groove, and Marshall retreated into the vocal booth to wait for a song to arrive. It was, she says, about “the energy of not knowing what you’re doing”. The first song cued by the human jukebox was Bob Seger’s “Against The Wind”, inspired by Marshall’s memory of being on a small boat with a friend. When he received bad news by text, Marshall commandeered the Bluetooth and played Seger’s anthem of romantic self-determination as they navigated the Mediterranean. Marshall, of course, plays it anti-clockwise, stripping out the cowboy imagery and the chest-puffing as Erik Paparozzi adds overlapping folds of minimal piano. An epic is transformed into a circle of numbed neurosis.
Next to emerge was Nick Cave’s “I Had A Dream, Joe”, prompted by Alianna Kalaba’s ominous drumming. Marshall had performed Cave’s “Into My Arms” live but her interpretation of “Joe” is itself dreamlike. She repeats the title as the tune rumbles on. Cave goes for demented jabbering; Marshall fixates on nightmarish fear.
Some of the choices are surprising. The Pogues’ “A Pair Of Brown Eyes” arrives like a transmission from a distant galaxy, halfway between Laurie Anderson and Shane MacGowan. Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” has steel, and a lot of #MeToo energy. The reboot of Nico’s arrangement of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” is sparse and – unusually for Marshall – warmer than the original, though it remains a song about a woman who is barely hanging on. Iggy Pop’s “Endless Sea” is dialled down, to be more about dissolving emotions than biblical alienation.
And so it goes, until you realise that, though they come from diverse musical traditions – the winding road between Billie Holiday and Lana Del Rey – the selections on this Cat Power mixtape carry a message of hope. For Marshall, every song is a torch, and there is none more illuminating than her hazy occupation of Paul Westerberg’s “Here Comes A Regular”. In Marshall’s reading, it’s a song about drinking alone, the lure of the dive bar, the salvation of the jukebox, the power of the song. There is a watery quality to the voice but Marshall swims directly towards the safe harbour of redemption. She does not wave, she does not drown.