Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) enjoys considerable adoration from US/British guitar-angst followers. Charismatic, endearingly eccentric and blessed with an otherworldly talent, this high school drop-out is a mesmerising one-off. You Are Free, Marshall’s first proper album since 1998’s Moon Pix, justifies this kind of heated veneration.
Everything Marshall touches has a hypnotic power that’s eerily unsettling. Her breathy, husky voice alone could make even a song by Nickelback sound eloquent and mysterious. Unlike, for instance, PJ Harvey, Marshall never resorts to PMT-enhanced melodrama, preferring calm to shrill caterwauling.
Such an approach is the key to her understated songwriting style as well. Sparse yet graceful, these 14 songs of love and loss interpret wispy folk and slow-burning country via brittle, lo-fi angularity.
Whereas her early, Sonic Youth-assisted albums were dense, Marshall now uses space and tension to devastating effect. “I Don’t Blame You” and “Names”, for instance, offer minimal, ghostly piano pieces that are intimate while also managing to be grandly luminous. The same goes for the delicate guitar slivers of “Keep On Running” and “Werewolf”?sketches turned masterpieces.
Marshall’s trick is to understand what brings a song alive. On the addictive “Free” and “He War”, rattling percussion and ringing guitar are deployed with cool precision. The just-woken-up mannerisms, it seems, are a red herring. There’s nothing meandering about these taut, complex, urgently involving songs.